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Chinnici v. Centurion of Vermont, LLC

United States District Court, D. Vermont

June 1, 2017

JOHN CHINNICI, Plaintiff
v.
CENTURION OF VERMONT, LLC; CODY BAKER, Correctional Officer at MVRCF, Defendants.

          RULING ON MOTIONS TO DISMISS, FOR RECONSIDERATION, AND FOR EXTENSION OF TIME (DOCS. 12, 22, 24)

          Honorable J. Garvan Murtha United States District Judge.

         I. Introduction

         John Chinnici, a Vermont inmate proceeding pro se, was granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis in October 2016 (Doc. 2) and his complaint against Defendants Centurion of Vermont, LLC and Cody Baker, in his official capacity as a Correctional Officer (“CO”) at Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility (“MVRCF”), was thereafter filed (Doc. 4). In December, Centurion of Vermont filed an answer (Doc. 9) and Defendant Baker filed a motion to dismiss (Doc. 12). In January, Chinnici filed and the Court denied a Request for Counsel. (Docs. 13, 15.) Chinnici has since opposed the motion to dismiss (Doc. 18) and filed motions to reconsider the order denying appointment of counsel and for an extension of time to comply with discovery requests (Docs. 22, 24). Baker filed a reply in further support of his motion to dismiss. (Doc. 19.) For the reasons that follow, Baker's motion to dismiss is GRANTED, Chinnici's motion for reconsideration is DENIED without prejudice, and Chinnici's motion for extension of time is DENIED as moot.

         II. Background

         The following facts are assumed to be true for purposes of the pending motions and are gleaned from the complaint. On March 30, 2016, medical staff at Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility advised Chinnici to apply a warm compress to his left leg due to bruising. Medical staff placed a wet towel in a small bag and instructed CO Baker to heat it in the microwave. CO Baker did so for a period of three minutes. As a result of nerve damage, Chinnici does not have feeling in parts of his legs. When Chinnici used the compress, he did not feel it burning his skin. He received third degree burns, blisters, and his tattoo was “burned completely through.” (Doc. 4 at 3.)

         Chinnici seeks the sum of $200, 000 for his pain and suffering, scarring, and cost of getting the scars removed and having the tattoo redone. (Doc. 4 at 3.) He also requests the Court grant leave to amend. Id.

         III. Discussion

         A. Motion to Dismiss

         While CO Baker has moved to dismiss Chinnici's claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, a motion that tests the legal rather than the factual sufficiency of a complaint, see, e.g., Sims v. Ortiz, 230 F.3d 14, 20 (2d Cir. 2000), he argues he is immune from suit. (Doc. 12 at 3-5.) The Eleventh Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits a citizen from bringing a suit against his or her own state or its agencies in federal court, absent a waiver of immunity and consent to suit by the state or a valid abrogation of constitutional immunity by Congress. Kimel v. Fla. Bd. of Regents, 528 U.S. 62, 72-73 (2000); Puerto Rico Aqueduct & Sewer Auth. v. Metcalf & Eddy, Inc., 506 U.S. 139, 142-47 (1993); Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 97-100 (1984). “A claim against a government officer in his official capacity is, and should be treated as, a claim against the entity that employs the officer.” Mathie v. Fries, 121 F.3d 808, 818 (2d Cir. 1997). Sovereign immunity is a threshold issue that must be addressed prior to considering dismissal for failure to state a claim. See Rhulen Agency, Inc. v. Ala. Ins. Guar. Ass'n, 896 F.2d 674, 678 (2d Cir. 1990). Accordingly, the Court construes the motion to dismiss as one under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

         A court should grant a Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss if it is not authorized by statute or the Constitution to adjudicate the plaintiff's claims. See Makarova v. United States, 201 F.3d 110, 113 (2d Cir. 2000). The party asserting subject matter jurisdiction has the burden of proving its existence by a preponderance of the evidence. Id. In determining whether subject matter jurisdiction exists, the court may look to evidence outside the complaint. Id. (citing Kamen v. Am. Tel. & Tel. Co., 791 F.2d 1006, 1011 (2d Cir. 1986)). In reviewing the complaint, the Court notes that because the plaintiff is proceeding pro se, it must construe his submissions liberally and interpret them to raise the strongest arguments they suggest. See Triestman v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 470 F.3d 471, 474 (2d Cir. 2006). While pro se litigants are afforded a liberal pleading standard, Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007), nonetheless, a pro se litigant is not exempt from compliance with relevant rules of procedural and substantive law, Traguth v. Zuck, 710 F.2d 90, 95 (2d Cir. 1983).

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a claimant may bring suit against any “person who, under color of any statute . . . of any State . . . subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” 42 U.S.C. § 1983. “The purpose of § 1983 is to deter state actors from using the badge of their authority to deprive individuals of their federally guaranteed rights and to provide relief to victims if such deterrence fails.” Wyatt v. Cole, 504 U.S. 158, 161 (1992). A plaintiff asserting a § 1983 claim must demonstrate: “(1) the defendant acted under color of state law; and (2) as a result of the defendant's actions, the plaintiff suffered a denial of her federal statutory rights, or her constitutional rights or privileges.” Annis v. County of Westchester, 136 F.3d 239, 245 (2d Cir. 1998). Section 1983, however, creates no substantive rights; “it provides only a procedure for redress for the deprivation of rights established elsewhere.” Thompson v. Pallito, 949 F.Supp.2d 558, 569 (D. Vt. 2013) (citation omitted). The Court construes Chinnici's claim to be a violation of his rights to be free of cruel and unusual punishment and for proper medical care under the Eighth Amendment[1] to the Constitution. See Doc 18 at 1.

         The State of Vermont has preserved its immunity under the Eleventh Amendment by statute, thereby rendering Vermont state agencies immune from suit. Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 12, § 5601(g). “A claim against a government officer in his official capacity is, and should be treated as, a claim against the entity that employs the officer.” Mathie v. Fries, 121 F.3d 808, 818 (2d Cir. 1997). The Eleventh Amendment pertains only to official capacity claims, see Kentucky v. Graham, 472 U.S. 159, 169 (1985); individual capacity claims are not protected by the Eleventh Amendment, Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 30-31 (1991).

         CO Baker moves to dismiss Chinnici's claims against him in his official capacity arguing the Vermont Tort Claims Act, 12 Vt. Stat. Ann. §§ 5601-5606, and Eleventh Amendment of the United States Constitution bar the § 1983 claim against him. (Doc. 12 at 3-5.)

         The Court finds Defendant Baker--a Correctional Officer at Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility--was acting as a state official when he performed the action of heating the wet compress according to the medical staff's directive on March 30, 2016. Accordingly, the constitutional claim for damages against CO Baker in his official capacity[2] is dismissed because it constitutes a claim against the State of Vermont and is barred by Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity. See Darcy v. Lippman, 356 F. App'x 434, 437 (2d Cir. 2009) (“The ...


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