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Steele v. Oklahoma Department of Corrections

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

March 31, 2017

JACQUELINE A. STEELE, as Next-of-Kin of MICHAEL L. STEELE, deceased, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff is next-of-kin of Michael Steele, deceased, who, at all times relevant to this action, was incarcerated at the Mack Alford Correctional Center (MACC) and Lexington Assessment and Reception Center (LARC), both located in Oklahoma. She has sued the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (ODOC), Robert Patton (Director of ODOC during Mr. Steele's incarceration); Justin Jones (Mr. Patton's predecessor); Kameron Harvanek (Warden of MACC during Mr. Steele's incarceration); Jim Ferris (Warden of LARC during Mr. Steele's incarceration); and several John and Jane Doe medical staff, medical providers and case managers at both facilities. Plaintiff alleges Defendants were indifferent to Mr. Steele's medical condition, which resulted in his death. Before the Court is Defendant's Partial Motion to Dismiss [Doc. No. 27], to which Plaintiff has filed her response [Doc. No. 29]. Defendants have replied [Doc. No. 30] and the matter is fully briefed and at issue.

         Defendants' motion contends Plaintiff's Complaint should be dismissed for five reasons: (1) Defendants, in their official capacities, have Eleventh Amendment immunity; (2) Plaintiff has failed to state a plausible claim for relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (3) Plaintiff's negligence claims are barred by the Oklahoma Governmental Tort Claims Act (OGTCA); (4) Under the OGTCA, the individual defendants cannot be held liable for acts performed within their scope of employment; and (5) The individual defendants have qualified immunity. Defendants also contend that punitive damages are not available under §1983. Plaintiff does not object to dismissal of all claims against ODOC and the individual defendants in their official capacities; she neither objects to dismissal of her negligence claims under the OGTCA. See Pl. Resp. at 2, 6. Accordingly, this order addresses only the issues of whether (1) Plaintiff has stated a claim upon which relief can be granted under §1983 against Defendants individually and (2) whether Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity.[2]


         The following facts are taken from the Second Amended Complaint and viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff. Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah v. Myton, 835 F.3d 1255, 1261 (10th Cir. 2016). During his incarceration at MACC and LARC, Mr. Steele complained of a small knot on the back of his head. His complaints were ignored. The knot eventually grew to the size of a tennis ball and caused him constant and severe pain.

         Mr. Steele was subsequently disciplined for having contraband in his cell. He and another cellmate were placed in isolation for several days. During his period in isolation, Mr. Steele was not treated for the knot on the back of his head. After his release from isolation, Mr. Steele's cellmate noticed that he was very weak and had lost weight. He placed Mr. Steele in a wheelchair and attempted to escort him to the LARC medical unit for treatment. When he arrived at the unit, the medical staff told him that there was nothing wrong with Mr. Steele and to take him back to his cell.

         Pursuant to the staff's instructions, Mr. Steele was returned to his cell, where he died a few hours later. Plaintiff alleges Mr. Steele was diagnosed has having Lymphoblastic Leukemia/Lymphoma and the prisons' respective medical staffs ignored his obvious symptoms. She asserts claims for denial of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and violations of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.


         “To survive a motion to dismiss [under Rule 12(b)(6)], a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.' ” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. The “plausibility” standard announced in Twombly and Iqbal is not considered a “heightened” standard of pleading, but rather a “refined standard, ” which the Tenth Circuit has defined as “refer[ring] to the scope of the allegations in a complaint: if they are so general that they encompass a wide swath of conduct, much of it innocent, then the plaintiffs have not nudged their claims across the line from conceivable to plausible.” Khalik v. United Air Lines, 671 F.3d 1188, 1191 (10th Cir. 2012) (citing Kansas Penn Gaming, LLC v. Collins, 656 F.3d 1210, 1214 (10th Cir. 2011); Robbins v. Oklahoma, 519 F.3d 1242, 1247 (10th Cir. 2008)).

         The Tenth Circuit has further noted that “[t]he nature and specificity of the allegations required to state a plausible claim will vary based on context.” Id. (quoting Robbins, 519 F.3d at 1248). “Thus … the Twombly/Iqbal standard is ‘a middle ground between heightened fact pleading, which is expressly rejected, and allowing complaints that are no more than labels and conclusions or a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action, which the Court stated will not do.' ” Id. (quoting Robbins, 519 F.3d at 1247). Accordingly, in deciding Twombly and Iqbal, there remains no indication the Supreme Court “intended a return to the more stringent pre-Rule 8 pleading requirements.” Khalik, 671 F.3d at 1191 (citing Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678).

         It remains true that “[s]pecific facts are not necessary; the statement need only ‘give the defendant fair notice of what the ... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.' ” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555); see also al-Kidd v. Ashcroft, 580 F.3d 949, 977 (9th Cir. 2009) (“Twombly and Iqbal do not require that the complaint include all facts necessary to carry the plaintiff's burden.”). Lastly, “[w]hile the 12(b)(6) standard does not require that Plaintiff establish a prima facie case in her complaint, the elements of each alleged cause of action help to determine whether Plaintiff has set forth a plausible claim.” Khalik, 671 F.3d at 1191 (citing Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 515 (2002)).


         The Supreme Court first recognized claims for deliberate indifference to a prisoner's medical needs in Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976). There, the Court held prison officials violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment if their “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain.” Id. at 104 (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). Id. at 105, 106. “[A] prisoner must allege acts or omissions sufficiently harmful to evidence deliberate indifference to serious medical needs.” Estelle, 429 U.S. at 106.

         In Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994), the Court clarified the standards applicable to deliberate indifference claims. It set forth a two-pronged inquiry, comprised of an objective and subjective component. Under the objective inquiry, the alleged deprivation must be “sufficiently serious” to constitute a deprivation of constitutional dimension. Id. at 834. Under the subjective inquiry, the prison official must have a “sufficiently culpable state of mind.” Id. This means a prison official cannot be liable “unless the official knows of and disregards an excessive risk to inmate health or safety; the ...

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