Comeaux et al v. Bittle et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT - Defendant Williams is entitled to summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 on qualified immunity grounds because Plaintiffs have failed to show that there exists a g enuine issue of material fact as to that qualified immunity defense as asserted by Defendant Williams. re: 74 (Document Restricted) SEALED: Defendant Williams' Motion for Summary Judgment Limited to the Defense of Qualified Immunity with Brief in Support (Sealed pursuant to order dated 9/26/2016) filed by Tammy Williams. (Ordered by Senior Judge Mary Lou Robinson on 10/6/2017) (vls)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF TEXAS
TEVIN COMEAUX, in his
Capacity and as Personal Representative of the
Estate of Arcade Joseph Comeaux, Deceased,
and LAKISHA ANTOINE, in her Individual
CNIL ACTION CAUSE NUMBER
NURSE TAMMY WILLIAMS,
The sole remaining Defendant in this civil rights case, Tammy Williams, has moved for
summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity against all claims and causes of action
asserted herein against her. Plaintiffs have responded, and Defendant has replied. For the
reasons, Defendant's motion is granted and a final judgment
be entered in her favor.
civil rights action brought by the son, Tevin Comeaux, Individually and
representative of the estate of Arcade Joseph Comeaux and the daughter, Lakisha Antoine, of the
deceased. On November 13, 2013, Comeaux died of sudden cardiac arrest due to ischemic heart
disease while in custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Clements
Unit, in Amarillo,
Texas. Defendant Williams was a Licenced Vocational Nurse (LVN) at the Clements Unit at all
times relevant to plaintiffs' complaint. As relevant to the claims asserted in this case, Williams'
primary job was to process sick call requests (SCR) for the entire unit and determine whether
only a reply
offender who submitted a SCR should be scheduled for a nurse clinic visit or whether
result of not receiving
was necessary to resolve the issue. Plaintiffs allege that Comeaux died as a
urgently needed medical care from August 6,2013 through November
, 2ol3 , and that
sick call requests
was aware of a substantial risk of harm to Comeaux through the information in the
to her in his
that she received from him during that time, as well as from information available
patient record. plaintiffs sue Williams individually under 42 U.S.C. $1983 for alleged
indifference to Comeaux's serious medical needs.
Summary Judgment Standards
,,The Court may terminate litigation by rendering a summaryiudgement where no genuine
judgement as a matter of law'"
issue of material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to
Honore v. Douglas, g33 F.2d 565,567 (5th Cir. 1987)(citations omitted). See also
v. Catrett, 477 U.5.3t1,322-23, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2552,
gl L.Ed.2d265 (19s6)(initial burden is on
R' Civ' Pro'
movant to show entitlement to summary judgment with competent evidence); Fed'
,,Summary judgement disposition is inappropriate
if the evidence before the court, viewed
whole, could lead to different factual findings and conclusions." Honore v. Douglas,
at 567. This Court must resolve "all factual uncertainties
favor of the nonmoving party."
and mak[e] all reasonable inferences
id. Accord Bienkowski
Airlines,851 F.2d 1503,
A material fact issue is one that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing
U'S' at 249,106
The substantive law gor"rnirrgihe case will identiff which facts are material. Id.,477
F.2d 283,287 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 488
S.Ct. at 2510. See Bache v. American Tel. and Tel. Co.,840
u.s. 888, 109 S.Ct. 2l9,l02L.Ed.2d 210 (1988).
Cir. lggg)./2 Such
finding may be supported by the absence of evidence necessary to
establish an essential element of the non-moving party's case. See Celotex Corp. v. Cartrett,
U.S.3 17,322,106 S.Ct. 82,121L.8d.2d265 (1986);Topalianv. Ehrman,954F-2d1125,1131
Cir.), cert. denied,954 U.S. 1t25,113 S.Ct' 82,121L.Ed.2d 46 (1992)'
from suit when they
Qualified immunity is a defense that protects govemment officials
exercise the discretionary functions of their
(1982). In order to overcome
Harlow v. Fitzgerald,45T U'S. 800, 815
ofqualified immunity, aplaintiffmust establishthat: "(1) the
official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) the right was 'clearly established at the
time of the challenged conduct," Morganv. Swanson, 659 F.3d 359,371(5th Cir.2011)(citing
Ashcroft v. al-Kidd,l31 s.ct. 2074,20g0 (201 1)), and demonstrate thatthe defendant's conduct was
objectively unreasonable in light of the legal rules clearly established at the time of her actions'
Thomas v. City of Dallas,175 F.3d 358 (5th Cir. 1999). These requirements
will not be satished by
conclusoryallegationsofwrongdorng. Geterv. Fortenberuy,849F.2d 1550,1553 (5thCir. 1988)'/3
The court may examine these factors in any order. Pearson v. Callahan,555 U.5.223 (2009)
(overruling in part Saucier v. Katz,553 U.S. 194 (2001)). It is the Plaintiffs' burden to present
However, "[t]here is no issue for trial unless there is sufficient evidence favoring the
nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party." Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at249,106 S'Ct'
at25ll (citations omitted). "If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative,
summary judgment may be granted." Id- (citations omitted).
The plaintiff bears the burden of negating the defense and cannot rest on
conclusory allegations and assertions, but must demonstrate genuine issues of material fact
regarding the reasonableness of the official's conduct. In order to overcome this defense, a
plaintiffmust prove Defendant violated "clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of
which a reasonable person would have known." Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 641
defendant is not entitled to qualified immunity when the defense is raised. See Bazan
ex rel. Bazan v.
Hidalgo County, 246 F -3d481, 489 (5th Cir. 2001).
Claims of qualified immgnity are not judged on twenty-twenty hindsight, or in light of
knowledge ascertained after an event, but by looking through the eyes of the public official,
considering what that official knew about the situation at the relevant time. Graham v- Connor, 490
U.S. 386, 396-97,109 S.Ct. 1865, 104 L.Ed.2d,443 (1989); Poole v. City of Shreveport, 691F.3d
624,630 (5th Cir. 2Ol2). "When properly applied, [qualifred immunity] protects all but the plainly
"Pre-existing law must dictat e, that is, truly compel (not just suggest or allow or raise a question
about), the conclusion for every like-situated, reasonable government agent that what the defendant
isdoingviolatesfederallawinthecircumstances." see Piercev.Smith,117F.3d866,882(5thCir.
lgg7) (emphasis in original omitted). If officers of reasonable competence could disagree as to
whether the plaintiff s rights were violated, the officer's qualified immunity remains intact. Tarver
v. City of Edna,410 F.3d 745,751(5th Cir. 2005) (citing Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335,341
Discussion and Analysis
Williams is entitled to qualified immunity because Plaintiffs have failed to state acogtizable
claim for deliberate indifference against her individually. It is undisputed that Defendant Williams'
primary relevant job was to process sick call requests for the Clements Unit. Williams did not enter
nurse or doctor referrals into the prison's computer system, nor did she personally schedule medical
appointments with either a nurse or a doctor. Another clerk was responsible for those entries and
had the responsibility of entering that information into the computer system. Another nurse decided
if a prisoner
had to see a nurse or a
doctor. Williams never physically treated Comeaux, except for
assisting in giving him one nebulizer treatment at some unknown point in time, and could not
personally either schedule him to see a doctor for his medical care or insure that he timely saw a
"A prison official violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel
punishment when his conduct demonstrates deliberate indifference to a prisoner's serious medical
(SthCir.2006) (citing Wilsony. Seiter,501 U.S. 294,297,111 S.Ct. 232l,ll5L-Ed.2d27l
(1991) (quoting Estelle y. Gamble, 429 U.5.97,97 S.Ct. 285, 50 L.Ed.2d 251 (1976)). Not every
claim by a prisoner that he has not received adequate medical treatment states a violation of the
Eighth Amendment. Whether a plaintiff has received the treatment or accommodation that he
believes he should have is notthe issue. Estelle v. Gamble,429IJ.S.97,106 (1976)- Nor do
negligence, neglect, medical malpractice or unsuccessful medical treatment give rise to a $ 1983
of action. Varnado v. Lynaugh, 920 F.2d 320,321(5th Cir. 1991). Rather, "subjective
recklessness as used in the criminal law" is the appropriate definition of "deliberate indifference"
undertheEighthAmendment. Farmerv.Brennan,511U.S.825,839-30(1994). Evenifalapse
in professional judgment occurred, such a failure would amount to mere negligence or malpractice;
not a constitutional violation actionable pursuant to $ 1983. Harris v. Hegman, 198 F.3d 530, 535
(5thCir. lggg)(citing Medozav. Lynaugh,989F.2dl9l,t95 (5thCir. i993). AsstatedrnFarmer,
to be liable on a claim of deliberate indifference, an
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
U.S. at 837 .
Plaintiffs have not established that Defendant Williams "refused to treat [Tevin Comeaux],
ignored his complaints, intentionally treated him incorrectly, or engaged in any similar conduct that
would clearly evince
wanton disregard for any serious medical needs." Domino v. Texas Dept.
Criminal Justice,239 F.3d752,756 (5th Cir. 200i)(quoting Estelle v. Gamble, supra.) "[A]ctions
and decisions by prison offrcials that are merely inept, erroneous, ineffective, or negligent do not
amount to deliberate indifferense." Hernandez v. Tex Dep't of Protective & Reg. Servs., 380 F.3d
872,883 (5th Cir. 2004) (quoting Alton v. Tex. A&M (Jniv., 168 F.3d 196,201 (5th Cir. 1999).
Plaintiffs' claims against Williams do not amount to deliberate indifference. At most, they
are state-court negligence
claims. The prison medical records document that Comeaux received
medical care while incarcerated; even given his extreme high risk status as an inmate due to his
previous assaultive history, pulling a weapon on transportation officers and escaping on foot from
his wheelchair. Because of his security status, extensive measures had to be taken every time
Comeaux was removed from his
cell. Comeaux was a level three inmate, which meant that in order
to open his cell door there would have to be two escorting officers present, a supervising officer, the
rank of sergeant or higher, and an officer recording the entire encounter on continuous video camera.
Defendant Williams' primary job, as relevant to the deliberate indifference constitutional
claims asserted against her in this case, was to timely respond to inmate sick call requests (SCR).
Williams testified that she received anywhere from 60 to 80 such requests per day. Williams did not
have the ability to go do a cell check on every inmate who submitted a SCR. Other nurses did that,
and did provide that medical care to Comeaux. At the time of Comeaux's death, Williams did not
provide direct medical treatment to inmates and did not have the benefit of going to see the patient
and ascertain whether he was
well and breathing normally. Her primary job,
relevant to this case,
was to stay in the nurses' station and respond to all of the inmate SCRs the unit received
was not authorized to go find a doctor in the hallway somewhere, or in another building far away
where actual medical treatment was being provided, to find a doctor to treat him now, or to try to
order a doctor to promptly either go see Comeaux, or to immediately schedule a medical care
appointment for Comeaux.
Williams did not have the authority to speed up medical provider appointments, nor was she
responsible under prison policy for ensuring compliance with provider appointments that were
admittedly past due because of a lack of medical care providers. Williams' only real option when
faced with a past-due provider appointment was to reply that the inmate was already scheduled, or
send the SCR onward to be scheduled for a nurse
clinic visit for
a patient assessment or a
appointment. In this case, Williams' primary relevant job was to address the patient's concerns by
responding that Comeaux was scheduled to see a medical care provider.
It is undisputed
Williams had no control over the medical providers' appointment schedules.
Williams was also tasked with the responsibility of screening SCRs that are repetitive to
make sure that one inmate's medical concems are not being missed or overlooked because she is so
to had virtually the same complaint. Comeaux repeatedly stated that he wanted his albuterol
prescription changed from renewal every 90 days to every 30 days. For those, Dr. Leeah testified
that because Comeaux's complaints were repetitive and had not changed, Williams' reponse that he
was already scheduled to see a provider was appropriate. Mere speculation as to what Williams
might have done, or should or could have done otherwise, or did regarding another prisoner's SCR
at some unknown date in the past does not make a constitutional deliberate-indifference claim
in this case.
When Williams received Comeaux's last SCR on November 13, 2013, complaining that he
could not get sufficient air in his lungs and that his inhalers were not helping, Dr. Leeah testified that
Williams' response that Comeaux was scheduled to
provider instead of scheduling a nursing
visit was appropriate because Comeaux had just received a nursing visit. In fact, he had seen a
doctor hours before he died. Under the relevant prison policy, if the patient has been seen by
or provider for the same or similar complaint as his new SCR within the last two weeks, then the
new SCR would not necessarily trigger any new action by that nurse. To the extent that Plaintiffs
complain that this policy was constitutionally inadequate, they do not have a viable constitutional
claim against Williams individually.
Plaintiffs assert what Williams could have done, should have done, and what
nurse would have done in her position; however, none of these allegations rise to the level of
conscious deliberate indifference by
Williams. None of Plaintiffs' allegations show egregious
conduct by Williams that would produce an unnecessary and wonton infliction of pain to Comeaux.
Plaintiffs have failed to come forward with evidence that Williams refused to treat Comeaux, ignored
his complaints, failed to respond to his SCRs, intentionally treated him incorrectly, or engaged in
similar conduct that would clearly evince "a wanton disregard" for Comeaux's "serious medical
v. Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice,239 F.3d 752, 156 (5th Cir.
Williams followed required prison medical protocols; responded to Comeaux's repeated complaints
even though he was already scheduled to see a provider for his SCR and, when there was a new
complaint or when Williams felt that a nurse clinic appointment was appropriate, she saw that his
SCR was sent on to the appropriate prison employee person to decide
be scheduled with a nurse or a doctor.
if another appointment should
Five nurses responded to Comeaux's written requests for care during the relevant time frame.
Despite Comeaux's asserted urgency, four of those nurses who assessed him noted in the medical
records that he was in his normal state of health, without
respiratory abnormality. In between those
nursing visits fromthe medical department, mental health staffassessed Comeaux and did notrecord
signs of distress or abnormality in his breathing. Those medical observations were noted in the
prison system's medical files, to which Plaintiffs point out Williams had computerizedaccess. The
evidence in this record shows that there were periods of delay in Comeaux seeing a medical care
provider, however, the delays were not legally attributable to Williams. At most, the delays may
amount to negligence that is not actionable under $ 1983.
Defendant Witliams is entitled to summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 on qualified
immunity grounds because Plaintiffs have failed to show that there exists
genuine issue of material
fact as to that qualified immunity defense as asserted by Defendant Williams.
Accordingly, Defendant Williams' motion for summary judgment is granted. Because she
is the sole remaining party defendant, a final judgment will be entered in accordance with this
It is SO ORDERED.
day of October, 2017
STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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