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Thomas v. Watson

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Hot Springs Division

April 6, 2016



Susan O. Hickey United States District Judge

Plaintiff, Kionta J. Thomas, filed this case pro se pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on March 13, 2015. ECF No. 1. The case is before the Court for preservice screening under the provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915A, which requires the Court to review complaints in civil actions in which a prisoner seeks redress from a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a).

Plaintiff is currently incarcerated in the Arkansas Department of Correction (“ADC”) Varner Unit. His Complaint concerns his time detained “in jail within Ouachita County awaiting a trial date for Clark County.” ECF No. 1, p. 10. Plaintiff alleges unconstitutional conditions of confinement. Specifically, he alleges that he was detained on January 5, 2015, in the Ouachita County Detention Facility. ECF No. 1, p. 11. He alleges that he was denied a sleeping mat from 3:30 p.m. on January 5, 2015, to 12:00 p.m. on January 6, 2015. He also alleges that he was not given a breakfast tray on January 6, 2015. ECF No. 1, p. 11.

Plaintiff further alleges that he filed a grievance about the lack of breakfast, and received no response on that grievance from Defendant Kane. Plaintiff identified Defendant Kane as the Jail Administrator and Grievance Officer, and lists his place of employment as Arkadelphia, Arkansas. Plaintiff proceeds against Defendant Kane in both his official and individual capacity.

Plaintiff proceeds against Defendant Watson in his individual capacity only. When asked to identify the act(s) or omission(s) of Defendant Watson, Plaintiff alleges that “Mr. Jason Watson is the Sheriff in Arkadelphia Clark County.” He lists his place of employment as Arkadelphia, Arkansas. ECF No. 1, p. 3. Later in the Complaint Plaintiff states that “Mr. James Watson is the sheriff at Clark County and is to have first hand knowledge of any acts that take place within Clark County Jail. (A) he did not act on the fact that I was placed in a cell without a ‘matt’ to rest on. (B) nor did he act on the fact that I was not given a breakfast tray.” ECF No. 1, p. 11.

The Ouachita County Detention Complex, where Plaintiff was housed, is located in Camden, Arkansas, which is in Ouachita County. The Clark County Sheriff’s Office, where Defendant Kane is employed, is located in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, which is in Clark County. Defendant Jason Watson is Sheriff of Clark County, as stated by Plaintiff. Therefore, Plaintiff is attempting to proceed against Clark County employees for conditions of confinement experienced in the Ouachita County Detention Complex.

Plaintiff seeks $75, 000 in damages for pain, suffering, and ill-treatment while “under the care of Clark County.” He also requests an investigation into the actions of both Defendants. ECF No. 1, p. 12.

Pursuant to the screening provisions of the PLRA, the Court must determine whether the causes of action stated in Plaintiff’s Complaint (1) are frivolous or malicious, (2) fail to state claims upon which relief may be granted, or (3) seek monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B) & 1915(A). A complaint is frivolous if it “lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact.” Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989). To state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must allege that a defendant, acting under color of state law, deprived him of a right, privilege, or immunity secured by the United States Constitution or by federal law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988).

For the reasons discussed below, Plaintiff has failed to state any cognizable claim against any defendant. Under Section 1983, a defendant may be sued in either his individual capacity, or in his official capacity, or in both. In Gorman v. Bartch, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals discussed the distinction between individual and official capacity suits. As explained in the Gorman case:

Claims against government actors in their individual capacities differ from those in their official capacities as to the type of conduct that is actionable and as to the type of defense that is available. See Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 112 S.Ct. 358, 116 L.Ed.2d 301 (1991). Claims against individuals in their official capacities are equivalent to claims against the entity for which they work; they require proof that a policy or custom of the entity violated the plaintiff's rights, and the only type of immunity available is one belonging to the entity itself. Id. 502 U.S. at 24-27, 112 S.Ct. at 361-62 (1991). Personal capacity claims, on the other hand, are those which allege personal liability for individual actions by officials in the course of their duties; these claims do not require proof of any policy and qualified immunity may be raised as a defense. Id. 502 U.S. at 25-27, 112 S.Ct. at 362.

Gorman, 152 F.3d 907, 914 (8th Cir.1998). “[R]igorous standards of culpability and causation must be applied to ensure that the [county] is not held liable solely for the actions of its employee” in cases where a plaintiff claims a county has caused an employee to violate the plaintiff’s constitutional rights. Board of County Commissioners, Oklahoma v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 405 (1997).

In the present case, Plaintiff identifies Defendant Kane as a Clark County Jail Administrator and Grievance Officer and Plaintiff indicates that he is suing Defendant Kane in his official capacity. However, Plaintiff has not made any allegations about a Clark County custom or policy which violated his constitutional rights. To the extent his complaint might be construed against Ouachita County, he has made no allegations of any Ouachita County policies or customs which violated his constitutional rights. Therefore, he has failed to state any cognizable official capacity claim against Defendant Kane.

Plaintiff’s claims against Defendant Watson in his individual capacity are barred by the doctrine of respondeat superior. A claim of deprivation of a constitutional right cannot be based on a respondeat superior theory of liability. See Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 654, 694 (1978). “[A] supervisor is not vicariously liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for an employee’s unconstitutional activity.” White v. Holmes, 21 F.3d 277, 280 (8th Cir. 1994); see also Keeper v. King, 130 F.3d 1309, 1314 (1997) (“general responsibility for supervising the operations of a prison is insufficient to establish the personal involvement required to support liability”). “Liability under section 1983 requires a causal link to, and direct responsibility for, the deprivation of rights. To establish personal liability of the supervisory defendants, [the plaintiff] must allege specific facts of personal involvement in, or direct responsibility for, a deprivation of his constitutional rights.” Clemmons v. Armontrout, 477 F.3d 962, 967 (8th Cir. 2007) (internal quotations omitted). In other words, defendants cannot be held liable merely because they hold supervisory positions with a county.

In the present case, Plaintiff states that he is suing Defendant Watson because he is the Sheriff of Clark County and should therefore know about any acts which take place “within the Clark County Unit.” Plaintiff also states that Defendant Watson failed to “act” on the missing mat and breakfast tray. Plaintiff has made no allegations that could be construed to show Defendant Watson had any personal involvement in Plaintiff’s alleged denial of a sleeping mat or missing breakfast tray. Further, Plaintiff’s individual capacity claim against Defendant Watson in this case is twice-removed, as ...

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