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Harmon v. Payne

Supreme Court of Arkansas

January 16, 2020

DEXTER HARMON APPELLANT
v.
OFFICER DEXTER PAYNE, ASSISTANT DIRECTOR, ARKANSAS DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTION; OFFICER JAMES GIBSON, WARDEN, VARNER UNIT; OFFICER JAMES SHIPMAN, DEPUTY WARDEN, VARNER UNIT; OFFICER YOLANDA CLARK, FOOD SERVICE DEPARTMENT; OFFICER LAQUISTA SWOPES, CORRECTIONAL OFFICER APPELLEES

          PRO SE APPEAL FROM THE LINCOLN COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. 40CV-18-58] HONORABLE JODI RAINES DENNIS, JUDGE

          Dexter Harmon, pro se appellant.

          Leslie Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: Rosalyn Middleton, Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellee.

          SHAWN A. WOMACK, ASSOCIATE JUSTICE

         Dexter Harmon sued Arkansas prison officials under the Arkansas Civil Rights Act and state tort law for allegedly depriving him of a nutritionally adequate diet that is safe for consumption. He filed suit against Appellees in their official and individual capacities. The circuit court concluded that Harmon's complaint was barred by sovereign and statutory immunity and failed to state facts upon which relief could be granted. The court dismissed the action and issued a strike. We affirm the dismissal but reverse the strike.

         I.

         During the relevant time period, Harmon was incarcerated at the Varner Supermax Unit of the Arkansas Department of Correction (ADC). In his pro se complaint, Harmon alleged that Appellees failed to comply with an ADC administrative regulation and unit policy concerning the food service at Varner Supermax. He sought to hold Appellees liable for negligence and for cruel and unusual punishment under the Arkansas Civil Rights Act. He requested injunctive and declaratory relief and reimbursement of costs.

         According to the complaint, Appellees consistently served small portions of cold and unappetizing food. Harmon claimed he was provided nutritionally inadequate, poorly seasoned, and "regularly unappealing" food that "tastes nasty." He also alleged that meals were delivered by unqualified prison employees who had not been trained in food service. He stated that employees did not wash their hands, had poor personal hygiene, appeared sick, and wore their regular uniforms while handling food. Harmon further complained that the food was not kept at acceptable temperatures. He accused Appellees of being deliberately indifferent to these concerns by refusing to thoroughly investigate his grievances and refusing to properly oversee food distribution. As a result, Harmon alleged that he was afraid to eat the food because he believed it was contaminated and placed him at risk of contracting a foodborne illness. According to Harmon, he consequently suffered emotional harm, weight loss, energy loss, and fatigue.

         The circuit court granted Appellees' motion to dismiss. The court concluded that the complaint was barred by sovereign and statutory immunity and failed to state facts upon which relief could be granted.[1] The court also issued a strike under Arkansas Code Annotated section 16-68-607 (Supp. 2017). This appeal followed.

         II.

         On appeal, Harmon contends that his complaint provided sufficient factual allegations to establish an exception to sovereign immunity, preclude application of statutory immunity, and satisfy our fact-pleading requirement. According to Harmon, his complaint provided factual allegations showing that Appellees' conduct violated the state constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment under the Arkansas Civil Rights Act and constituted negligence under state tort law. He asks that we reverse the dismissal of his complaint and the circuit court's issuance of a strike.

         When reviewing the circuit court's decision to grant a motion to dismiss, we treat the facts alleged in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Banks v. Jones, 2019 Ark. 204, at 3, 575 S.W.3d 111, 114. All reasonable inferences are resolved in favor of the complaint, and the pleadings are liberally construed. Id. Under our fact-pleading requirement, a complaint must state facts in order to entitle the pleader to relief. Id. Mere conclusions will not suffice. Id. We review a motion to dismiss for abuse of discretion. Id. But whether a party is immune from suit is purely a question of law and is reviewed de novo. Id.

         A.

         The Arkansas Constitution unequivocally provides that "[t]he State of Arkansas shall never be made defendant in any of her courts." Ark. Const. art. 5, § 20. We have extended sovereign immunity to state agencies and employees sued in their official capacities. See Williams v. McCoy, 2018 Ark. 17, at 3, 535 S.W.3d 266, 268. Sovereign immunity accordingly extends to claims against Appellees in their official capacities as ADC employees. See Fegans v. Norris, 351 Ark. 200, 206-07, 89 S.W.3d 919, 924 (2002) (per curiam). In determining whether the doctrine of sovereign immunity applies, the court must decide whether a judgment for the plaintiff will operate to control the action of ...


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