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Dismissal of Prisoner’s Federal and State Claims Not Warranted; Prison Employees Not Automatically Immune from Liability

Dismissal of Prisoner’s Federal and State Claims Not Warranted; Prison Employees Not Automatically Immune from Liability

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania has held that a state prisoner sufficiently stated Eighth Amendment and state law claims to avoid dismissal of his suit and found that prison employers were not entitled to immunity under the Eleventh Amendment or Sovereign Immunity.

State prisoner Clarence Abney was allegedly beaten by guards. He filed suit in the district court against the guards and other prison officials, raising supervisory liability claims and state law claims of assault, battery and the intentional infliction of emotional distress. In a motion to dismiss the claims, the defendants alleged that Abney had failed to state a claim as to supervisory liability and that they were immune to the state law claims. On March 7, 2014, the district court denied the defendants’ motion, holding that Abney had sufficiently plead his federal claims, that immunity did not apply to the defendants in their individual capacities and that sovereign immunity may not apply due to the defendants’ conduct.

While incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Huntington on May 24, 2013, Abney allegedly returned to his dormitory after outside recreation. He purportedly placed his ID card before defendant Younker, who refused to touch the card because it was sweaty. After several “rude gestures” from Younker, Abney alleged that he had informed Younker to address him rather than gesture. Younker reportedly ordered Abney to go to the Restricted Housing Unit (“RHU”), but Abney swung at him instead.

According to Abney, defendants Younker, Brooks, Lehman, Snyder, Hills, Hartman, Mallery, Everly and Yarnell beat him while six other defendant guards stood by without intervening. Abney, bloody and fighting unconsciousness, was then purportedly restrained and dragged to the RHU without medical treatment. Abney was subsequently airlifted to a trauma center and treated for a concussion, a nasal fracture and facial lacerations, and placed on a ventilator.

Abney later filed suit against seventeen prison employees, including Bickell, the superintendent, and Stevens, the shift commander. Abney raised state law claims against the defendants for the beating and Eight Amendment claims against Bickell and Stevens for their failure to train and supervise their subordinates. Abney sought injunctive relief and damages. On July 24, 2013, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss the claims, arguing that Abney had failed to state a claim on the Eight Amendment allegations and that the defendants were immune to the state claims pursuant to the eleventh Amendment and Sovereign Immunity.

Stevens and Bickell (together “the supervisors”) specifically argued that Abney had not alleged their personal involvement in the Eight Amendment claims. The district court held otherwise, that Abney had done so under two theories. Analyzing Abney’s claims in terms of supervisory liability, the court stated that Abney has alleged that (1) the supervisors “had knowledge of, and acquiesced in, his subordinates’ violations” and that (2) the supervisors implemented procedures that, left unchanged, led to a constitutional violation.

Next, as to immunity, the district court stated that the Eleventh Amendment protected the defendants from liability only in their official capacities, not their individual capacities. Additionally, the district court held that “it is unclear…whether the defendants’ conduct fell within the scope of their employment.”

The district court, therefore, found no basis to grant the defendants’ motion to partially dismiss the complaint. See: Abney v. Younker, U.S.D.C (M.D. Pa.), Case No. 1:13-cv-01418-YK-SES.


Related legal case

Abney v. Younker