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Sepulveda v. UMass Correctional Health Care

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

February 5, 2016

FRANCIS SEPULVEDA, Plaintiff,
v.
UMASS CORRECTIONAL HEALTH CARE, et al., Defendants.

ORDER ON DEFENDANTS’ MOTIONS TO DISMISS

ALLISON D. BURROUGHS, DISTRICT JUDGE.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Francis Sepulveda (“Mr. Sepulveda”) is a state inmate incarcerated at Massachusetts Correctional Institute, Norfolk (“MCI Norfolk”). His complaint in this case alleges that the Massachusetts Department of Corrections (and numerous officials) have failed to provide him with adequate medical care, in violation of his rights under the United States Constitution, the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the United Nations Convention Against Torture. Mr. Sepulveda’s complaint also alleges state-law tort claims for negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

Currently before the Court are motions to dismiss filed by three sets of defendants. First, Defendant UMass Correctional Health Care (“UMCH”) has moved to dismiss all claims pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1), on the grounds of sovereign immunity. [ECF No. 24]. Second, Defendants Rebecca Lubelczyk, M.D. (“Dr. Lubelczyk”) and Thomas Groblewski, M.D. (“Dr. Groblewski”) have moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), arguing that Mr. Sepulveda fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted. [ECF No. 26]. Finally, Defendants Massachusetts Department of Correction (the “DOC”), former DOC Commissioner Luis Spencer (“Spencer”), former MCI Norfolk Superintendent Gary Roden (“Spencer”), and Deputy Superintendent Cynthia Sumner (“Sumner”) have also moved to dismiss all claims against them, citing a variety of legal grounds. [ECF No. 31].

For the reasons set forth in this Memorandum and Order, UMCH’s Motion to Dismiss, and Defendants Lubelczyk and Groblewski’s Motion to Dismiss are both ALLOWED. The DOC, Spencer, Sumner, and Roden’s Motion to Dismiss is ALLOWED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

II. BACKGROUND

A. Procedural History

Initially, Mr. Sepulveda was a named plaintiff in Stote v. UMass Correctional Health Care, No. CIV.A. 13-10267-NMG, a civil rights action filed by fellow prisoner John E. Stote and more than 100 other current and former inmates at MCI Norfolk, all of whom alleged inadequate medical care in the prison. In an Order dated June 25, 2014, Judge Gorton ordered the plaintiffs’ claims to be severed, and the Court opened a separate civil action for each individual plaintiff. Judge Gorton also ordered that the original complaint in the Stote case be docketed as the operative complaint for each individual plaintiff, unless and until that plaintiff elected to file an amended complaint. Stote v. UMass Corr. Health Care, No. CIV.A. 13-10267-NMG, 2014 WL 2916760, at *2-3 (D. Mass. June 25, 2014). Judge Gorton’s Order also reminded plaintiffs that “the bar is somewhat high for stating a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for an Eighth Amendment violation based on inadequate medical care, ” and advised that each plaintiff “should make sure that the pleading sufficiently states his own claim.” Id.

This action was opened on behalf of Mr. Sepulveda on June 27, 2014, with the Stote pleading serving as the Complaint. [ECF No. 1 (“Compl.”)]. Although Mr. Sepulveda did not file an amended pleading, he indicated a desire to proceed with his case by filing a Motion for Leave to Proceed in forma pauperis. [ECF No. 4]. On January 29, 2015, the Court (Talwani, J.) allowed his Motion to proceed without paying filing fees, but after screening the Complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2) and 1915A, the Court also held that with respect to ten of the eighteen named defendants, it could not be “reasonably infer[red] from the alleged facts that these ten defendants were in any way involved in Sepulveda’s medical care.” [ECF No. 5]. Accordingly, the Court advised Mr. Sepulveda that if he did not file an amended complaint within 42 days setting forth the basis of his claims against those ten defendants, his claims against those defendants would be dismissed. [Id.]. Mr. Sepulveda did not file any amended complaint. Thus, this Court dismissed all claims against those ten defendants on May 6, 2015. [ECF No. 12].[1]

With respect to the eight remaining defendants, however, the Court (Talwani, J.) ordered summonses to issue. Those remaining defendants are: (1) UMCH; (2) the DOC; (3) Spencer; (4) Dr. Groblewski; (5) Dr. Lubelczyk; (6) Maureen Atkins, Health Services Administrator; (7) Roden, and (8) Sumner. The docket reflects that all defendants, with the exception of Atkins, have been served with process.[2] On June 9, 2015, UMCH filed a Motion to Dismiss [ECF No. 24], as did Drs. Groblewski and Lubelczyk [ECF No. 26]. The DOC, Spencer, Roden, and Sumner filed their Motion to Dismiss on June 25, 2015. [ECF No. 31]. The Court granted Mr. Sepulveda’s first request for an extension of time to respond to these motions, [ECF No. 35], allowing him until September 5, 2015 to file an opposition or an amended complaint. On September 11, 2015, Mr. Sepulveda filed yet another Motion for an Extension of Time, noting that he was in the process of drafting an amended complaint. [ECF No. 37]. He also assured the Court that no further extensions would be requested. [Id.]. The Court granted Mr. Sepulveda an extension of time until December 5, 2015 to respond to the defendants’ motions or file an amended complaint. [ECF No. 38]. Mr. Sepulveda, however, has not filed any response or amended pleading with the Court.

Accordingly, the Court will address the merits of the defendants’ motions to dismiss, using the original Stote complaint as the operative pleading document.

B. The Stote Complaint

The Stote Complaint is voluminous, comprising more than 190 pages. The first 15 pages contain general allegations describing “alleged systemic problems with the provision of medical services at MCI Norfolk . . . .” Stote, 2014 WL 2916760, at *1. Those alleged problems include

(1) lack of inmate access to medical professionals and specialists, (2) failure to provide services in a timely fashion, (3) failure to perform medically necessary tests, (4) failure properly to diagnose and treat a variety of conditions, including severe pain and dental conditions, (5) premature termination of treatment and medication, (6) failure to allow consistent access to medications, (7) failure to follow the direction of outside specialists, and (8) refusal to provide medical treatment because an inmate is new to MCI Norfolk, subject to disciplinary proceedings or going to be released.

Id. The plaintiffs also allege “inadequate staffing, an ineffective grievance procedure and inmate difficulties in accessing their own medical records.” Id. As previously noted by Judge Gorton, however, these generalized allegations are of limited use in determining whether any individual inmate’s rights were violated, because “[e]ach inmate's right to relief will . . . turn on matters of proof involving his own medical conditions, injuries suffered, treatment received or denied.” Id. It is unclear which, if any, of the general allegations in the first 15 pages of the Stote Complaint pertain to Mr. Sepulveda. And because Mr. Sepulveda has failed to file an amended pleading clarifying which of these allegations apply to him, the Court declines to consider these conclusory paragraphs for purposes of the Defendants’ motions to dismiss.

Next, pages 16-21 of the Stote Complaint set forth an assertion of “Jurisdiction and Venue, ” followed by a list of the 158 named Plaintiffs and similar list of the original defendants. [ECF No. 1]. Thereafter, the Complaint details the specific complaints of each of the named plaintiffs, including Mr. Sepulveda. [Id.] With regards to the pending motions to dismiss, the Court will consider only those paragraphs in the Stote Complaint that set forth concrete facts pertaining specifically to Mr. Sepulveda. [See Compl. ¶¶ 224-27].

The specific Counts (12 in total) begin on page 168 and assert the following legal claims:

Count I: Inadequate medical care, deliberate indifference and conspiracy
Count II: Torture and conspiracy in violation of international conventions and treaties
Count III: Religious Rights and conspiracy
Count IV: Retaliation and conspiracy
Count V: Equal Protection
Count VI: State constitutional rights
Count VII: Americans with Disability Act
Count VIII: Negligence
Count IX: Intentional infliction of emotional distress
Count X: Negligent infliction of emotional distress
Count XI: Failure to Train
Count XII: Future harm

The Court interprets the Complaint to state claims for: (1) violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, based on inadequate medical care in violation of plaintiffs’ Eighth Amendment rights; (2) violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, based on deprivations of plaintiffs’ equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment; (3) conspiracy to violate plaintiffs’ civil rights, in violation of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985; (4) violations of the United Nations Convention Against Torture; (5) violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act; (6) violations of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights; (7) negligence; (8) intentional infliction of emotional distress; and (9) negligent infliction of emotional distress. [Compl. ¶¶ 845-94].[3] The Complaint purports to name all defendants in both their official and individual capacities.

The Complaint requests relief in the form of (1) an injunction enjoining the defendants from violating the plaintiffs’ rights; (2) injunctive relief in the form of an order requiring the DOC Commissioner to provide adequate medical care; (3) compensatory damages in the amount of $125 million; (4) punitive damages in the amount of $1 million; and (5) costs and attorneys’ fees.

C. Factual Allegations

The Complaint alleges the following facts regarding Mr. Sepulveda’s medical care at MCI Norfolk, which the Court accepts as true for purposes of the defendants’ motions to dismiss.

Mr. Sepulveda suffers from degenerative disc disease in his C5/C6 and C6/C7 vertebrae, causing pain that he describes as “constant and always a 10 on the one to ten scale.” [Compl. ¶ 224]. He alleges that the pain wakes him up 3 to 5 times per night. [Id.]. Although he has been advised to try rolling up a towel at night, this does not relieve his pain. [Id.]. Mr. Sepulveda also experiences numbness in his shoulders, arms and hands, which is sometimes so severe that he cannot hold a toothbrush. Mr. Sepulveda alleges that he has been seen for these problems at Tufts New England Medical on “numerous” occasions. [Id.]. He alleges that each time he goes, the doctor states that he is “looking into something, ” but Mr. Sepulveda never hears back. Although Mr. Sepulveda has been prescribed various medications for these issues, including Neurontin (a nerve medication), he “does not like the way it makes him feel.” [Id.]. Further, although Mr. Sepulveda specifically requested treatment in the form of a “Gel shot” injection, this treatment was refused by his providers at MCI-Norfolk. [Id.]. Mr. Sepulveda contends that the defendants’ refusal to provide the Gel shot, or to prescribe any other effective pain medication, demonstrates that he is not receiving adequate medical care. [Id. ¶¶ 224-25].

Next, the Complaint alleges that Mr. Sepulveda is not receiving adequate treatment for various dental issues. [Id. ¶ 226]. He contends that he began to experience issues with his teeth in June of 2012, and that the dentist waited too long to fill his teeth, causing an infection. Mr. Sepulveda also alleges that in September 2012, he filed a complaint with Deputy Superintendent Sumner. Sumner responded to the complaint by saying that she had “inquired about his access to dental care” and was informed that he had “been examined multiple times by the dentist during this period of time, ” including an examination on June 20, and a filling on June 27. She noted that he was seen again on July 10 and 27, and referred for oral surgery. Mr. Sepulveda was also seen on August 8, 2012 and advised that another tooth needed to be extracted. Sumner also noted that on August 8, 2012, Mr. Sepulveda was prescribed 20 days of Motrin for pain, and scheduled for oral surgery. [Id.]. Mr. Sepulveda, however, alleges that Sumner’s response failed to acknowledge that he had been in pain well before he was treated for his dental issues, and that he did not receive any pain medication until August 8, 2012. [Id.].

Mr. Sepulveda also alleges that he has pain in his right ankle, weakness and pain in both Achilles tendons, bone spurs in both feet, and serious toenail fungus. [Id. ¶ 227]. He claims that he has not received adequate medical care for these problems, because he has “not been allowed to see Dr. King the foot doctor.” [Id.].

III. ANALYSIS

Each of the defendants has moved for dismissal pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), on the grounds that Mr. Sepulveda’s Complaint fails to state any claim on which relief may be granted. UMCH, the DOC, Sumner, Spencer, and Roden have each also raised the defense of Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity, which is typically presented in a motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1).

The Court will first analyze the sufficiency of Mr. Sepulveda’s claims under the federal pleading standard. Sovereign immunity will be addressed secondarily, and only to the extent that Mr. Sepulveda’s claims survive defendants’ Rule 12(b)(6) motions. See Parella v. Ret. Bd. of Rhode Island Emp. Ret. Sys., 173 F.3d 46, 53, 55 (1st Cir. 1999) (courts in this circuit are not required to decide Eleventh Amendment issues before proceeding to examine the merits of a plaintiff’s claim); Greenless v. Almond, 277 F.3d 601, 608 (1st Cir. 2002) (where there is “merits issue” that is dispositive, the “wiser approach” is to avoid reaching the constitutional issue of Eleventh Amendment immunity).

A. Adequacy of claims under ...


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