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Williams v. York

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

May 31, 2018

John Henry Williams, Plaintiff- Appellee
Debra York, Infirmary Administrator, Varner; Ludlam, Dental Assistant, Varner, Defendants Randy Watson, Warden, Varner; Moses Jackson, Assistant Warden, Varner; Bolden, Major, Chief of Security, Varner; Malone, Major, Chief of Security, Varner Super Max, Defendants - Appellants Stephens, Captain, Shift Commander, Varner Super Max; Corizon CMS, Medical Providers for ADC, Defendants

          Submitted: December 13, 2017

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas - Pine Bluff.

          Before SMITH, Chief Judge, ARNOLD and KELLY, Circuit Judges.

          KELLY, Circuit Judge.

         In this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action, inmate John Henry Williams alleges that Arkansas Department of Correction (ADC) officials Randy Watson, Moses Jackson, Lasaundra Malone, and Kennie Bolden (Defendants) were deliberately indifferent to his painful dental condition. After this court decided Cullor v. Baldwin, 830 F.3d 830 (8th Cir. 2016), Defendants asked the district court[1] to reconsider its previous denial of their motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. The district court denied the request, and Defendants appeal. We affirm.


         Construed in the light most favorable to Williams, the record includes the following facts.[2] See Letterman v. Does, 789 F.3d 856, 858-59 (8th Cir. 2015). Watson is the warden at ADC's Varner Super Max Unit (Varner), and Jackson is the assistant warden. Malone and Bolden are security chiefs at Varner. From June 11, 2013, until at least September 26, 2013, Williams was housed in administrative segregation at Varner. On June 27, 2013, he submitted a sick call, complaining of tooth pain. Four days later, a nurse examined Williams, and recommended that he be treated by a dentist. But Varner did not have an onsite dentist at the time. Instead, Dr. Russell, the dentist at ADC's Cummins Unit, was treating inmates at Varner one to two days per week, and Varner inmates were being transported to Cummins for extractions two to three times per month. Varner and Cummins are two miles apart.

         Williams was not seen by a dentist until three months after he submitted his sick call. According to Williams, in that time, his teeth and gums became diseased, abscessed, and severely painful. His "mouth was filled with boil type sores, " "puss [was] seeping from his gums, " and his face became disfigured. He had toothaches, was unable to eat regular foods, lost weight, and "was scared he would die daily." During the delay, he was seen occasionally by a nurse, who gave him ibuprofen and told him he was on a waiting list to see a dentist. On September 6, 2013, Williams extracted two of his own teeth. He was scheduled to see Dr. Russell on September 11, 2013, but that appointment was cancelled due to unknown "security issues." When Dr. Russell finally saw Williams on September 26, 2013, he immediately extracted seven more teeth.

         Williams avers that each Defendant knew of his dental pain. He sent affidavits to Warden Watson and Assistant Warden Jackson, stating he was not receiving care for his "extreme dental issues." In the affidavit he sent to Watson, Williams indicated he was in "a great deal of pain and discomfort, " and asked Watson to arrange for him to be treated at another ADC unit. During an in-person meeting, Williams also asked Jackson to help him get dental care. In response, Jackson laughed and told Williams he had no authority to pressure medical staff to send him to Cummins for treatment. During yard call, Williams showed his mouth and teeth to Major Malone, and sometimes "swallow[ed] his pride to beg [her] for help." He got no response. Major Bolden was aware of Williams's deteriorating dental condition too, but also took no action. During daily security checks, Williams "would beg and beg [Defendants] for help in getting [him] a dentist, or just to take actions which would enable [him] to be escorted and/or transferred over to the Cummins Unit . . . where a dentist could render emergency extractions/dental services." The officials "turned their backs on [him], leaving him helpless in a one-man cell." In July 2014, Williams filed this lawsuit, alleging that Defendants had been deliberately indifferent to his serious dental needs, and claiming that each of them had been personally aware of his dental problems yet did nothing to help him.

         In June 2015, Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing, as relevant, that Williams had failed to state a viable § 1983 claim against them because they are not physicians, have no formal medical training, and are "not involved in the day-today delivery of medical services, other than to provide security." According to Defendants, only those individuals directly responsible for an inmate's dental care can be liable in a deliberate-indifference claim. In Defendants' view, they cannot be held liable for the delay in Williams's treatment because Corizon-a private medical and dental care provider-was responsible for his dental care pursuant to a contract with ADC. In August 2015, the district court, adopting the magistrate judge's report and recommendation, denied Defendants' request for qualified immunity. Specifically, the district court reasoned that, in the light most favorable to Williams, the record could show that his dental problem was both serious and known to Defendants. The district court acknowledged that none of the Defendants had medical expertise, but determined that even a layperson could have understood that Williams's dental condition was serious. The district court further reasoned that Defendants could not "hide behind the fact there was no dentist available [at Varner]. As custodians they ha[d] the obligation to ensure treatment was procured."[3]

         This court decided Cullor in August 2016. In Cullor, we held that two prison officials were entitled to qualified immunity in an inmate's deliberate-indifference claim arising out of a shortage of prison dentists. 830 F.3d at 839. The plaintiff alleged that prison officials had failed to "provide sufficient resources to ensure minimally adequate dental care" and failed to address a resulting dental staff shortage, causing the plaintiff to suffer unnecessary pain while he waited for dentures. Id. at 836. The officials were generally aware that the dentist shortage was causing long wait times. See id. at 835-36. Notably, the plaintiff conceded that the officials "made efforts to secure additional dental staff." Id. at 835 & n.9. The officials had actively recruited dentists, explored various recruiting programs, and offered the maximum allowable salary to qualified applicants. Id. at 835. In light of these efforts, we concluded that the officials could not be said to have been deliberately indifferent to the shortage of dentists. Id. at 839. Instead, "governmental and economic factors" had played the "greatest role" in causing the shortage, and the officials had tried to alleviate the shortage despite those factors. Id.

         Three months after this court decided Cullor, Defendants filed their motion for reconsideration, requesting that the district court "reconsider its previous ruling on qualified immunity in light of [Cullor]." In the motion, Defendants argued that Cullor was "factually and legally on point, " and that they could not have violated Williams's clearly-established rights in 2013 because Cullor was not decided until 2016.

         The magistrate judge recommended that the motion be denied, reasoning that Cullor was distinguishable because, here, Defendants had not offered a "meritorious reason to justify the delay in Mr. Williams's dental care" and had "offered no evidence to show the delay in Mr. Williams's treatment was not a product of their conduct." The magistrate judge indicated that Defendants had "rested on the fact they are not medically trained personnel involved in the 'day-to-day delivery of medical services.'"

         Defendants filed timely written objections and a supplemental declaration. In the declaration, Watson attested that, during the relevant period, Corizon was responsible for providing dental care to inmates pursuant to a contract with ADC, and he received monthly updates about inmate dental care. During the delay, Watson was aware that Varner lacked an onsite dentist, but he knew that Dr. Russell was treating inmates at Varner one or two days per week and that inmates were being transported to Cummins for treatment two or three times per month. Watson also averred that Corizon had been trying to hire an onsite dentist for Varner, and that none of the Defendants were authorized to ...

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