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Story v. Oklahoma County

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

December 29, 2017

OKLAHOMA COUNTY et al., Defendants.



         Plaintiff Christian G. Story, [1] appearing pro se and proceeding in forma pauperis, brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging unconstitutional conditions of confinement. See Compl. (Doc. No. 1). United States District Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange has referred this matter to the undersigned magistrate judge for initial proceedings consistent with 28 U.S.C. § 636. Upon review of Plaintiff's Complaint, the undersigned recommends that the Court dismiss its claims without prejudice.

         I. Standard of Review and the Court's Screening Obligation

         The Court is obligated to conduct an initial review of Plaintiff's Complaint to identify its cognizable claims and to dismiss the pleading, or any portion thereof, that is frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B), 1915A(b)(1); 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c)(1); Doc. No. 5 (Order granting Plaintiff leave to proceed in forma pauperis). A pro se litigant's complaint must be liberally construed. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976). The broad construction accorded to the pro se litigant's allegations does not, however, “relieve the plaintiff of the burden of alleging sufficient facts on which a recognized legal claim could be based.” Hall v. Bellmon, 935 F.2d 1106, 1110 (10th Cir. 1991). A complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted when it lacks factual allegations sufficient “to raise a right to relief above the speculative level on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact).” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (footnote and citation omitted). In evaluating whether a plaintiff has stated a valid claim, the Court “accept[s] as true all well-pleaded factual allegations in the complaint and view[s] them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Burnett v. Mortg. Elec. Registration Sys., Inc., 706 F.3d 1231, 1235 (10th Cir. 2013). Bare legal conclusions in a complaint are not entitled to the assumption of truth; “they must be supported by factual allegations” to state a claim for relief. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009).

         II. Plaintiff's Allegations

         Plaintiff asserts § 1983 claims against Oklahoma County and also against four persons sued in both their individual and official capacities: Oklahoma County Commissioner Willa Johnson, Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan, former Sheriff of Oklahoma County John Whetsel, and current Sheriff of Oklahoma County P.D. Taylor. See Compl. at 4-5. Plaintiff seeks both monetary damages and injunctive relief, as well as the issuance of a temporary restraining order “compelling Defendants to transfer inmates to Facilities with no mold” and to “provide hot water to inmate cells and showers.”[2]Id. at 7-8.

         Construing the pro se Complaint liberally, Plaintiff raises two claims of unconstitutional conditions of confinement. See Id. at 6-7. First, Plaintiff alleges that the Oklahoma County Detention Center's “ventilation system, including inmate cells, and shower areas are infested with mold.” Id. at 9. Plaintiff contends that he has been exposed to the mold “mycotoxins since [his] booking date[].” Id. at 10. According to Plaintiff, Defendant Whetsel had a “policy or custom of disregarding jail maintenance records” and failing to “ensure that air-filters [were] replaced on a scheduled basis” to prevent the growth of mold. Id. Plaintiff further alleges that Defendant Johnson and Defendant Maughan “adopted [this] policy or custom.” Id. at 10-11. In his second claim, Plaintiff alleges that on May 18, 2017, “Defendant Taylor authorized the hot water to inmate cells and showers to be turned-off.” Id. at 11. Plaintiff similarly accuses Defendant Johnson and Defendant Maughan of “adopt[ing] Taylor's policy or custom of not providing inmates with hot water.” Id. at 12.

         III. Discussion

         Although Plaintiff cites both the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, Plaintiff is a pretrial detainee and, thus, the Fourteenth Amendment governs his claims of unconstitutional conditions of confinement. See Compl. at 3, 6-7; Craig v. Eberly, 164 F.3d 490, 495 (10th Cir. 1998) (citing Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 535 (1979)). The scope of protections, however, is analyzed under the Eighth Amendment. Craig, 164 F.3d at 495 (“Although the Due Process Clause governs a pretrial detainee's claim of unconstitutional conditions of confinement, the Eighth Amendment standard provides the benchmark for such claims.” (citation omitted)).

         The Eighth Amendment requires prison officials to “provide humane conditions of confinement” for inmates. Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994); see also Ramos v. Lamm, 639 F.2d 559, 568 (10th Cir. 1980) (stating that prison officials must “provide an inmate with shelter which does not cause his degeneration or threaten his mental and physical well being”). To show a violation of the Eighth Amendment based upon constitutionally inadequate conditions of confinement, Plaintiff must satisfy both an objective and a subjective component. To satisfy the objective component, the deprivation must be “sufficiently serious” “as to deprive inmates of the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities” or as to “constitute a substantial risk of serious harm.” Shannon v. Graves, 257 F.3d 1164, 1168 (10th Cir. 2001). As to the subjective component, Plaintiff must show that Defendants “ha[d] a culpable state of mind”-i.e., that they “act[ed] or fail[ed] to act with deliberate indifference to inmate health and safety.” Id.; accord Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834. The Supreme Court has “defined this ‘deliberate indifference' standard as equal to ‘recklessness, ' in which ‘a person disregards a risk of harm of which he is aware.'” DeSpain v. Uphoff, 264 F.3d 965, 972 (10th Cir. 2001) (quoting Farmer, 511 U.S. at 836-37).

         a. Count I: Exposure to Black Mold

         The presence of mold is insufficient, by itself, to constitute the type of substantial risk of serious harm that would give rise to an Eighth Amendment claim. See Cox v. Grady Cty. Det. Ctr., No. CIV-07-875-M, 2008 WL 1925052, at *3 (W.D. Okla. Apr. 29, 2008) (finding that “mold in the showers does not create a reasonable inference regarding the sort of threat to . . . mental or physical well being which is necessary for violation of the Eighth Amendment”); Sutherland v. Richardson, No. CIV-05-1199-T, R. & R. at 8 (W.D. Okla. Nov. 21, 2005), adopted, 2005 WL 3556104 (W.D. Okla. Dec. 28, 2005); see also Shrader v. White, 761 F.2d 975, 983-84 (4th Cir. 1985) (holding that leaking ceilings, cold water in cells, dripping shower heads, and rust, mold, and mildew in shower area were not sufficiently serious deprivations to support an Eighth Amendment claim).

         Even assuming that the presence of mold to the degree alleged by Plaintiff would, in this instance, be a sufficiently serious deprivation to satisfy the objective prong, the Complaint fails to allege facts tending to show subjective deliberate indifference. To establish that a defendant acted with deliberate indifference, Plaintiff must show that Defendants “both knew of and disregarded an excessive risk to inmate health or safety.” Smith v. United States, 561 F.3d 1090, 1105 (10th Cir. 2009) (citing Farmer, 511 U.S. at 837 (“[T]he official must both be aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and he must also draw the inference.”)). It is insufficient to show merely “[a]n official's failure to alleviate a significant risk that he should have perceived but did not.” Farmer, 511 U.S. at 838; see Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 319 (1986) (noting that Eighth Amendment liability requires “more than ordinary lack of due care for the prisoner's interests or safety”).

         Plaintiff's claim is premised solely on the following: that Defendants Whetsel, Johnson, and Maughan “breached” their “obligat[ions] to monitor and review maintenance records” and that this dereliction of duty constituted “deliberate indifference” and was the cause of the presence of mold. Compl. at 10-11. The Tenth Circuit, in a case the undersigned finds persuasive, has declined to find deliberate indifference on similar facts. In Weldon v. Ramstad-Hvass, 512 F. App'x 783 (10th Cir. 2013), the plaintiff-prisoner claimed that the defendant-official had failed to inspect the prison for mold and that the plaintiff's subsequent exposure to mold caused him to suffer an allergic reaction. See Id. at 794. The ...

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