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Suit Against Delaware DOC Advances With 39 Prisoner Plaintiffs and 40 Defendants

by David M. Reutter

On August 17, 2023, lawyers for a group of 39 current and former prisoners at Delaware’s Sussex Correctional Center (SCC) largely beat back a motion brought by defendant prison officials to dismiss their complaint alleging a “systematic pattern” of beatings at the lockup in 2021 and 2022.

The most recent amended complaint, filed by attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on July 21, 2022, lists 40 guards as defendants, along with the warden and deputy warden. It accuses the guards of “engag[ing] in extreme, unprovoked, and unnecessary acts of violence against the Plaintiffs.” It further alleges a “delay or denial of medical attention to treat the injuries resulting from their assaults.” Prison leaders “ratified and institutionalized this abuse and unlawful conduct.” The result: “[P]hysical abuse is the majority culture.”

“The complaints don’t stop,” said ACLU attorney Dwayne Bensing. “We have allegations of correctional officers emptying bottles of pepper spray into the mouth and nose and ears of people. We have kicking, choking, splitting people’s heads up and using their bodies to open doors and to bring them into other parts of the facility, dragging them across the floor.”

The lawsuit was filed in January 2021 by two plaintiffs, and the complaint was amended in February and July 2022. The second amended complaint now lists 39 plaintiffs.

Kyle Bullock was one of the new plaintiffs added. He was arrested in 2020 after a Black Lives Matter protest and booked into SCC. After asking about the circumstances of his arrest, an unidentified guard allegedly pepper-sprayed him and punched him in the head. He was never examined by medical staff despite obvious swelling on his head, he said. Instead, he was taken to a cell on an empty tier where the shower did not work, so he couldn’t wash off the spray.

Another plaintiff, Jummie Moore, said that after an SCC guard ran over his leg with a work truck in February 2021, he obtained a no-contact order to keep him out of SCC. Yet a year later he was returned to the lockup and further abused by guards, allegedly pepper sprayed and pushed headfirst into the wall of his cell, causing head and neck injuries. “I hope you die in there,” he recalled that one guard said.

Another plaintiff, Bradley Zahner, claimed a guard knocked his breakfast tray out of his hand because mealtime was over. He was then allegedly pepper sprayed and slammed to the floor. His face hit the floor and a guard kneed him so hard in the back that he defecated. When more guards joined the fray, one put his knee on Zahner’s head, splitting his forehead open. He was then dragged by his arms to the infirmary before he was placed in isolation for 20 days. The attack left a large scar on his forehead.

Many of the plaintiffs who joined the case and who remain at SCC allege they have been subjected to retaliation that includes “excessive force, physical abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, and being deprived of basic amenities,” said Wilmington attorney Daniel A. Griffith, whose firm of Whiteford Taylor Preston LLC is working with the ACLU.

“I Will Rip Your Dick Off”

Defendants filed their motion to dismiss the complaint in September 2022, also asking the Court to sever any remaining claims into separate suits for each plaintiff – an obvious attempt to “divide and conquer” the group. Judge Thomas L. Ambro of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit was sitting by designation on the bench at the district court when the motion arrived. He ordered the parties to draw up a chart allocating the suit’s allegations to each plaintiff and each count.

Armed with that, he then agreed with Defendants to dismiss some claims under Count II – for Lack of Adequate Medical Care Under the Fourteenth and Eighth Amendments – either because they lacked specificity or because they were more properly complaints lodged against prison medical staff, not guards. However, he refused to dismiss counts based on allegations like that brought by plaintiff Richard Edwards, who said guard Sgt. Hastings knew the prisoner was suicidal yet responded not by providing care but by assaulting him, adding: “This isn’t going to go down like you expected.”

The Court also refused to dismiss some claims under Count VI for intentional infliction of emotional distress. “Plaintiffs meet their pleading burden if they allege (1) extreme and outrageous conduct; (2) an intent to cause severe emotional distress or reckless disregard with respect to causing emotional distress; and, (3) the conduct actually caused severe emotional distress,” Judge Ambro said, citing Jordan v. Delaware, 433 F. Supp. 2d 433 (D. Del. 2006). So, claims survived like that made by plaintiff Kevin Ignudo, who said guards Sgt. Steven Long, Cpl. Steele and Sgt. Joseph McCarthy not only physically assaulted him but also taunted him with threats like “I will rip your dick off and put it in your mouth!”

Claims under Count VII for violating the “law of dignity” were also dismissed; the Court agreed with Defendants that “although dignity is an important principle underlying many constitutional claims, it is not a standalone cause of action.” Additional claims under the same count for First Amendment retaliation were also dismissed for failure to allege that any plaintiff (1) “engaged in constitutionally protected activity” to which (2) “the government responded with retaliation” and (3) that it was “the protected activity [which] caused the retaliation,” as laid out in George v. Rehiel, 738 F.3d 562 (3d Cir. 2013). But plaintiffs were given leave to amend their allegations with something more than “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements” and “conclusory statements,” per Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009).

The Court also swatted away Defendants’ attempt to sever the remaining claims, saying they “more closely resemble a pattern of related abuse than logically dissimilar events.” Thus Defendants’ motion was only partially granted. See: Davis v. Neal, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 144106 (D. Del.).  

Additional source: WHYY

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Related legal case

Davis v. Neal