by Douglas Ankney
On December 8, 2022, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania agreed to pay state prisoner Warren Easley $30,000 to settle claims that guards and medical staff at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) in Frackville violated his civil rights.
Easley filed his suit pro se in federal court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania on May 26, 2017, proceeding under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Nurse Practitioner Brian Shiptoski and 15 guards with the state Department of Corrections (DOC): Rhonda Adamcik (formerly Tomcavage), Jason Albert, Stacey Albert (formerly Dowd), Robert Boyce, Kevin Corby, David Gregoire, Karen Holly, Brian Keller, Christopher Kostinko, Jill Marhelko, Robert Marsh, George Miller, Jennifer Newberry, Dorina Varner, and Brenda Tritt.
Defendants moved for summary judgment, which the Court only partially granted on August 7, 2018. As the Court noted, it cannot render summary judgment unless “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law,” as laid out in Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 56(a). Moreover, citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (1986), the Court said a “disputed fact is ‘material’ if proof of its existence or nonexistence would affect the outcome of the case under applicable substantive law.” See: Easley v. Tritt, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 132117 (M.D. Pa.).
As the Court recalled, Easley accused Defendants of “violat[ing] his First and Eighth Amendment rights through deliberate indifference, denial of medical care, failure to protect, retaliation, access to courts, and excessive force” in a horrific series of events, from March 2015 to October 2017.
“Specifically,” the Court continued, Easley accused NP Shiptoski of “failing to move Easley to a Mental Health Unit,” even after the prisoner tried to commit suicide “over thirty times resulting in over sixty stitches and over three hospital trips.”
Meanwhile guards put him in a restraint belt and chair and threw him into a “‘grind up’ cell with no mattress,” depriving him of “basic human need[s]” and forcing him “to sleep in feces and defecate on the floor.” His hair was “forcefully cut.” He was tasered. Reports were “falsified against him.”
He was then placed in a “dry cell,” where he was served an oversized “food loaf” his medical condition couldn’t digest, before guards “extracted [him] from his cell and forced [him] to ‘parade’ naked in front of other inmates,” the Court noted. He was also allegedly “assaulted with urine” and “called a ‘rat’” – even “encouraged to swallow toenail clippers and a metal bolt” before he “was then forced to sift through his own feces in order to recover these items.”
When Easley’s grievances were “withheld or [he] did not receive timely responses,” the Court continued, he “had legal documents confiscated and thrown away, resulting in a denial to access to the courts.” The case proceeded to a subsequent ruling by the Court on March 16, 2021, again refusing to grant all of Defendants’ motions for summary judgment.
Eighth Amendment Claims
On May 20, 2015, Easley said that Defendants placed him in a restraint chair to have his hair forcibly cut, and even though he was restrained, he was tasered five times in the chest, which caused him to defecate on himself and lose range of motion and mobility in his shoulders. The ankle straps were also excessively tight, causing damage to Easley’s Achilles tendon. Furthermore, his hair was “not longer than the collar which was policy at the time.”
Defendants asserted Easley’s haircut was “a good faith effort to restore and maintain order” because he had “hidden shards of broken glass in his hair, which he had used to cut through restraints.” Easley countered that he had neither hidden shards of glass in his hair nor had he ever been charged with doing so.
The Court said the standard governing this excessive force claim was “whether force was applied in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline or maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm,” citing Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312 (1986). Based on the record, the Court determined that “a reasonable jury could conclude that [Defendants’] actions were not based upon a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline,” so it denied them summary judgment on this claim.
Next, in August 2015, Easley said he was placed on a “Food Loaf” diet despite being on a medical diet that limited him to six small meals due to “small gut syndrome,” resulting from a gunshot wound. Due to complications following surgeries, Easley could not digest the 30-ounce loaf and did not eat 27 of his meals. When he complained, Tomcavage, Miller and Tritt allegedly said he “would have to earn his medical diet.” The Court said that replacing a prisoner’s diet with a food loaf that is nutritionally similar does not violate the Eighth Amendment, citing Gannaway v. Berks Cty. Prison, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 35047 (E.D. Pa.). But because there was no evidence that the food loaf was nutritionally similar to Easley’s medical diet, the Court concluded issues of material fact existed and denied summary judgment to the three guards.
That same month, on August 5, 2015, Albert allegedly approached Easley’s cell, stated “I told you I would get you,” and sprayed Easley in the face numerous times with oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray. Defendants argued that the spray was justified because Easley refused orders to stop trying to cut himself out of the restraint belt. But because the determination of whether the OC spray was needed to restore discipline was a factual issue in dispute, the Court denied them summary judgment as to this excessive force claim.
Next, on November 20, 2015, Easley said that he was extracted from his cell by Albert, who forced him to strip and left him naked in front of a female nurse. Gregoire then “paraded” Easley naked in front of other prisoners while returning him to his cell. On December 18, 2015, Gregoire again removed Easley from his cell and paraded him naked around the unit in view of other prisoners. The Court concluded that video evidence and Easley’s sworn averments supported “the inference that [Defendants Albert and Gregoire] intended to humiliate [Easley],” which has no “penological justification,” as laid out in Solan v. Ranck, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 84903 (M.D. Pa.).
Then, on February 12, 2016, Tomcavage and Marhelko allegedly told the prisoners on Easley’s unit that he was “a rat,” and the two guards even paid a prisoner “incentive points to throw urine on” him. On May 11, 2016, Tomcavage and Albert were at Easley’s cell door when a prisoner stated: “F*ck this rat ass p*ssy y’all always baby him. I’ma beat his ass first chance I get.” This same prisoner then assaulted Easley on May 16, 2016, when Tomcavage and Albert placed the two prisoners in the same cage. The Court said that “[l]abeling an inmate a snitch [or a rat] may give rise to an Eighth Amendment violation if the prison official acted with deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm to the inmate,” as held in Tabb v. Hannah, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106529 (M.D. Pa.). Defendants denied Easley’s version of events, but the Court concluded that resolution of the claim required a witness-credibility determination, which is not permitted at the summary judgment stage since all facts are then to be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.
Easley also alleged that he was repeatedly strapped in a restraint chair for periods exceeding eight hours, followed by placement in a restraint belt with his hands handcuffed to the belt – where he was kept for more than 24 hours on at least two occasions, he said. He could not lower his garments to use the bathroom, so he defecated and urinated on himself. He couldn’t clean up because Defendants kept him in a “dry” cell without water and would not provide him with toilet paper. Based upon the record, the Court concluded “there is a dispute of fact as to whether Defendants exposed Plaintiff to a ‘substantial risk of physical harm’ and ‘unnecessary pain,’” citing Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730 (2002).
On April 8, 2015, Easley was again strapped in the restraint chair when Corby allegedly struck him in the face out of camera view. The next day, on April 9, 2015, he repeatedly slammed Easley’s head against the ground, causing blood to gush from the left side of his head. Corby denied striking Easley in the face, and said he hit Easley’s head only because the prisoner tried to bite him. Because the material facts were in dispute, the Court denied summary judgment as to this claim.
On August 17, 2015, while Easley was once again strapped into the restraint chair, Tritt allegedly ordered a smock blanket placed around him and secured to his neck with flex cuffs, causing Easley to choke, sweat profusely and hyperventilate. Again, because there was a dispute whether the smock was used in good faith or maliciously, the Court denied summary judgment.
On December 22, 2015, while Kostinko was escorting Easley back to his cell, he stated “I’m sick of your shit” and threw the handcuffed prisoner into a wall – then threw him to the ground with his elbow in Easley’s neck. Kostinko countered that he felt Easley tense up as if to get away. Because it was disputed as to whether force was applied in good faith or maliciously and sadistically, the Court denied summary judgment.
First Amendment Claim
Easley alleged that Defendants intended to retaliate against him because of more than 50 grievances he filed against them. To prevail on a retaliation claim, the Court noted, a plaintiff must establish that: (1) he was engaged in a constitutionally protected activity; (2) he suffered some adverse action at the hands of prison officials that was sufficient to deter a person of “ordinary firmness” from engaging in his constitutionally protected activity; and (3) the constitutionally protected activity was a substantial or motivating factor in the decision to discipline him, all as laid out in Rauser v. Horn, 241 F.3d 330 (3d Cir. 2001).
The filing of grievances is a constitutionally protected activity, the Court noted. But because Easley’s retaliation claim was intertwined with the disputed facts underlying his Eighth Amendment claims, the Court denied summary judgment as to this claim as well. See: Easley v. Tritt, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 48883 (M.D. Pa.).
The parties then proceeded to reach their settlement agreement, which included an acknowledgement that Defendants would get Easley off the “Restricted Release List” and return him to a “Behavioral Modification Unit” (BMU). The agreement also included costs and fees for counsel Easley had by then picked up from attorneys with the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. See: Easley v. Tritt, USDC (M.D. Pa.), Case No. 1:17-cv-00930.
Putting Easley back in BMU was apparently necessitated by an incident that prompted him to file a separate suit pro se in the Court in 2019 against guards Lisa Hollibaugh and Gary Horton at SCI-Smithfield. The former he accused of daring him to out her extramarital affair in September 2017 and the latter of punching him repeatedly in the stomach while Easley was restrained in a psychiatric holding cell in March 2018. It was when Hollibaugh wrote him up, Easely said, that he lost his BMU spot. Much like the decision reached in his other suit six days earlier, the Court refused to grant Defendants summary judgment in this case on March 22, 2021. See: Easley v. Hollibaugh, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52866 (M.D. Pa.). The parties then proceeded to reach a settlement agreement on January 27, 2022, paying Easley $7,500. See: Easley v. Hollibaugh, USDC (M.D. Pa.), Case No. 1:19-cv-02026.
Given the high bar prisoners must clear to prevail in a lawsuit, Easley deserves congratulations for taking two all the way to settlement.
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