BRIGHT v. TYSON et al
OPINION. Signed by Judge Susan D. Wigenton on 12/1/2016. (seb)
*NOT FOR PUBLICATION
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
MICHAEL NATHANIEL BRIGHT,
C. TYSON, et al.,
Civil Action No. 15-8038 (SDW)
WIGENTON, District Judge:
Currently before the Court is Defendant Lauren Storck-Burger’s motion to dismiss Plaintiff
Michael Nathaniel Bright’s complaint brought pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
12(b)(6). (ECF No. 34). Plaintiff has filed a response to the motion (ECF No. 39), to which
Defendant has replied. (ECF No. 45). For the following reasons, this Court will deny the
In the opinion screening Plaintiff’s complaint, this Court summarized the facts alleged in
Plaintiff’s complaint as follows:
Plaintiff is fifty-six year old convicted state prisoner currently
incarcerated at Northern State Prison in Newark, New Jersey.
(ECF No. 1 at 3, 7). Plaintiff’s complaint concerns an attack he
suffered in the prison’s mess hall during the morning hours of
October 24, 2014. (Id. at 6). At approximately 7:00 a.m., Plaintiff
was standing in line to obtain breakfast. (Id.). Plaintiff alleges
that, while he was in line, another inmate, Shariff St. Clair, suddenly
began to repeatedly strike Plaintiff with his closed fists without any
warning or apparent reason. (Id.). Plaintiff alleges that, while the
attack was going on, two corrections officers, Defendants C. Tyson
and Sergeant G. Cordova, were standing in another area of the mess
hall having a conversation. (Id. at 7). Plaintiff alleges that neither
officer took any action to prevent the attack, despite the fact that St.
Clair was a known threat who had previously attacked others and
who was known to suffer from some form of unstable mental illness.
(Id.) Plaintiff alleges that even though the officers possessed mace
and other equipment, they did not intervene when they saw that St.
Clair was beating Plaintiff, and instead called in a response team.
(Id. at 7-8).
When the response team arrived, they quickly separated
Plaintiff and St. Clair. (Id. at 8-9). According to Plaintiff, while
the two were being separated, St. Clair continued to kick Plaintiff
while Plaintiff took no action and gave officers no resistance. (Id.).
Plaintiff alleges that the response team officers, despite Plaintiff’s
injuries and lack of resistance, thereafter held him down, handcuffed
him, and ultimately sprayed him with a can of mace. (Id.). Based
on the apparent altercation between Plaintiff and St. Clair, officers
Cordova and Tyson filed charges against Plaintiff and St. Clair for
fighting and disrupting the facility’s operations, and filed reports in
support of those charges asserting that Plaintiff had fought with St.
Clair. (Id.). The officers’ lieutenant, Defendant E. Mercado,
signed off on the validity of those reports. (Id. at 10).
Following the attack, Plaintiff was taken to the infirmary and
treated before being taken to a pre-hearing detention area based on
the charges filed. (Id. a 9). Because the nurse in the pre-hearing
detention area examined Plaintiff and determined he needed more
treatment based on injuries suffered in the attack, Plaintiff was
ultimately returned to the infirmary. (Id. at 10-11). It is not clear
whether Plaintiff was returned to pre-hearing detention following
Plaintiff received a disciplinary hearing on the charges
against him. Based on St. Clair’s testimony that he attacked
Plaintiff because of the voices in his head, the hearing officer found
Plaintiff not guilty of all of the disciplinary charges against him.
(Id. at 11). Plaintiff thereafter filed various grievances against the
officers involved. (Id.).
Plaintiff alleges that Defendant [Lauren] Storck-Burger is a
psychiatrist employed at Northern State Prison. (Id. at 12).
Plaintiff alleges that Storck-Burger oversaw the mental treatment of
St. Clair, and was aware that St. Clair had a history of mental illness
and frequent violent incidents. (Id.). Plaintiff alleges that all of
the officers in the facility were also aware of these frequent outbursts
and attacks on other inmates. (Id.). Plaintiff alleges specifically
as to Storck-Burger that she was also aware that St. Clair often failed
to take his medications and that, in spite of her knowledge, StorckBurger approved the release of St. Clair into the general population
of the prison without properly monitoring St. Clair’s medication.
(ECF No. 3 at 2-3).
A. Legal Standard
In deciding a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must “accept all factual
allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine
whether under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief.”
Fair Wind Sailing, Inc. v. Dempster, 764 F.3d 303, 308 n. 3 (3d Cir. 2014) (quoting Phillips v.
Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008)). According to the Supreme Court’s
decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, “a pleading that offers ‘labels or conclusions’ or ‘a formulaic
recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.’” 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting
Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). To survive a motion to dismiss for
failure to state a claim, a complaint must allege “sufficient factual matter” to show that its claims
are facially plausible. Fowler v. UPMS Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009) (citation
omitted). “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.”
Dempster, 764 F.3d at 308 (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678).
Defendant Storck-Burger seeks the dismissal of Plaintiff’s claims against her for failure
to state a claim for relief. As stated in this Court’s prior screening opinion, Plaintiff has
essentially pled a claim against Storck-Burger for failure to protect him from attack from another
inmate named St. Clair. To state a claim for failure to protect in violation of the Eighth
Amendment, a plaintiff “must plead facts that show (1) he was incarcerated under conditions
posing a substantial risk of serious harm, (2) the official was deliberately indifferent to that risk
to his health and safety, and (3) the official’s deliberate indifference caused him harm.” Bistrian
v. Levi, 696 F.3d 352, 367 (3d Cir.2012) (citing Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994)).
A prison official acts with deliberate indifference where she knows of and disregards a
substantial risk of serious harm to an inmate’s health or safety. Farmer, 511 U.S. at 837. For
the purposes of such a claim, it does not matter “whether a prisoner faces an excessive risk of
attack for reasons personal to him or because all prisoners in his situation face such a risk.” Id.
In her motion to dismiss, Defendant Storck-Burger makes two arguments – first, that
Plaintiff lacks standing to raise a claim on behalf of St. Clair challenging the level of treatment
she provided St. Clair, and second that Plaintiff’s failure to protect claim fails to state a claim
against her. As to Defendant’s first argument, it does not appear that Plaintiff intends to raise a
claim on behalf of St. Clair challenging his treatment, instead it is clear that Plaintiff is
attempting to raise a claim against Storck-Burger based on her recommendation that St. Clair be
released back into the prison’s general population, which Plaintiff contends placed all prisoners
likely to run into St. Clair at risk. Thus, Defendant’s first argument is inapposite as it addresses
a claim Plaintiff does not appear to be making.
In her second argument, Defendant essentially avers that Plaintiff has failed to present
any facts which would permit the Court to infer that she was in any was responsible for the harm
that befell Plaintiff. Defendant suggests both that there is no basis for holding a psychiatric
professional responsible for the actions of her patients and that a history of violent incidents is
insufficient to state a claim for failure to protect. Underlying Defendant’s arguments is her
assertion that she had no responsibility for the safekeeping of Plaintiff, and thus she lacked any
duty to take action to protect him from any danger St. Clair posed. That assertion, however,
appears to be mistaken. See, e.g., Baskerville v. Jackson, No. , 2016 WL 4487851, at *3 (D.N.J.
Aug. 24, 2016) (psychological professional can be held liable for failure to protect where one of
his patients, known to have a history of violent outbursts, attacked and injured another inmate);
see also Runyon v. Smith, 163 N.J. 439, 441 (2000) (holding that “in certain circumstances a
psychologist may have a duty to warn and protect third parties . . . from imminent, serious
physical violence. As part of that duty, the psychologist would be required to disclose
confidential information obtained from a patient.”). Thus, if Plaintiff has adequately pled that
Storck-Burger was deliberately indifferent to the danger St. Clair posed, her argument fails and
her motion must be denied.
Here, Plaintiff has adequately pled that Storck-Burger was deliberately indifferent to a
serious threat in the form of St. Clair. Throughout his complaint, Plaintiff contends that St.
Clair suffers from a serious mental illness which results in him violently acting out by attacking
other inmates. He has also alleged that this occurs more frequently when St. Clair fails to take
his medication. Plaintiff likewise alleges that Storck-Burger knew that St. Clair was a threat to
other prisoners, had a history of failing to take his medication, and yet recommended that St.
Clair be released into general population without warning prison officials of the danger St. Clair
posed to others, including Plaintiff, and without properly monitoring St. Clair’s taking of his
medication. Taking all of these allegations as true for the purposes of this motion, this Court
finds that Plaintiff has more than adequately pled a claim for failure to protect in so much as he
has pled facts suggesting that St. Clair was a danger to all other inmates based on his mental
illness and history of violent attacks when off his medication, that Storck-Burger knew of this
risk, and still chose to recommend his release back into general population without the
monitoring of his medication, and that the result of that choice on her part was the assault
Plaintiff suffered. While it remains to be seen whether he could prove his assertions true,
Plaintiff’s allegations, as pled, adequately state a claim for relief.
To the extent that Defendant relies on various cases in which summary judgment was
granted in a defendant’s favor where an attacker was known to have a history as a trouble maker
but not known to be a direct danger to others, that reliance is misplaced. All of the cases
Defendant cites for that proposition were dealing with a different stage of litigation – summary
judgment – and a record that suggested that the attacker was known to be trouble or occasionally
problematic, but was not known to be a direct threat of violence. See Evans v. Cameron, 442 F.
App’x 704 (3d Cir. 2011) (affirming summary judgment where plaintiff failed to allege that
defendants had prior knowledge of any threat of violence posed by an attacker prior to assault on
the plaintiff); Bizzell v. Tennis, 449 F. App’x 112 (3d Cir. 2011) (affirming grant of summary
judgment where attacker had a history of trouble making, but had not had a history of fighting or
other general violent incidents for two years); Wise v. Ranck, 340 F. App’x 765 (3d Cir. 2009)
(affirming grant of summary judgment where failure to protect claim was based on an altercation
between cell mates who did not get along, but where the plaintiff had not feared any attack by his
cell mate and the prison guard had told the attacker that fighting would not be tolerated). All of
those cases are distinguishable from the allegations made by Plaintiff here – that St. Clair was a
known risk of violent assault, especially when he stopped taking his medication, and that
Defendant Storck-Burger knew of that risk of violence when she recommended he be returned to
general population. Plaintiff has alleged sufficient facts to state a plausible claim against
Defendant Storck-Burger for her failure to protect him from the violent danger St. Clair posed to
other inmates. Defendant’s motion to dismiss is therefore denied.
For the reasons stated above, this court will deny Defendant Storck-Burger’s motion to
dismiss. An appropriate order follows.
Dated: December 1, 2016
_s/ Susan D. Wigenton__
Hon. Susan D. Wigenton,
United States District Judge
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