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Unitt v. Bennett

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

May 7, 2019




         Now before the court is the Motion to Dismiss (#65) of defendants Christine Horn, RN, Carrie Holowecki, LCSW, Cesar Novoa, PA, Betty Richards, RN, and Amanda Brown, RN (collectively, the “Medical Defendants”). The Medical Defendants represent that they were employed by the Massachusetts Partnership for Correctional Health (“MPCH”) during the relevant time period. They ask that the court dismiss all counts against them pursuant Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. For the reasons stated below, the motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.


         The court writes for the parties and assumes their familiarity with the lengthy Second Amended Complaint (“SAC”) (#59). In short, pro se plaintiff Lee Unitt suffers from a rare, chronic medical condition known as Fibromuscular Dysplasia (“FMD”) which is characterized by abnormal cell growth within the artery walls.[1] She was diagnosed with this condition in 2011, before she came into the care and custody of the Massachusetts Department of Correction in 2013. Unitt claims that, because of alleged exposure to asbestos, PCBs, and other harmful airborne particulates while incarcerated at MCI Framingham, the FMD has worsened and her left renal artery has become increasingly stenotic, or narrowed. She was also diagnosed with type II diabetes in 2015. The prescription medications Unitt takes to treat hypertension, malignant hypertension, and diabetes also prevent the ability of the body to thermoregulate. She claims that the Medical Defendants have failed to provide adequate care for her medical condition.


         I. Claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983

         Unitt brings claims against the Medical Defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“§ 1983”), alleging that they violated the Eighth Amendment. “Deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes the ‘unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain' proscribed by the Eighth Amendment.” Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104 (1976) (quoting Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 173 (1976) (joint opinion of Stewart, Powell and Stevens, JJ.)). “This is true whether the indifference is manifested by prison doctors in their response to the prisoner's needs or by prison guards in intentionally denying or delaying access to medical care or intentionally interfering with the treatment once prescribed.” Id. at 104-105 (footnotes omitted). However, not “every claim by a prisoner that he has not received adequate medical treatment states a violation of the Eighth Amendment, ” and “[m]edical malpractice does not become a constitutional violation merely because the victim is a prisoner.” Id. at 105, 106.

         “In order to state a cognizable claim, a prisoner must allege acts or omissions sufficiently harmful to evidence deliberate indifference to serious medical needs.” Id. at 106. An Eighth Amendment claim for inadequate medical care consists of subjective and objective components. See Kosilek v. Spencer, 774 F.3d 63, 82 (1st Cir. 2014) (en banc). As to the objective component, a plaintiff must plead facts, which, if true, show “a serious medical need for which [the plaintiff] has received inadequate treatment.” Id. at 85. The subjective component requires factual allegations supporting an inference of “deliberate indifference” by the defendant. Id. at 83.

         A. Defendants Novoa and Holowacki

         Unitt's allegations can be fairly construed to allege that she had an objectively serious medical need to have a fan in her cell to help her regulate her body temperature. Unitt's own doctor had conveyed this in a report soon after she began serving her sentence. On February 10, 2016 Unitt was seen by a nephrologist at Lemuel Shattuck Hospital, who, in a written report, explained why body temperature regulation was crucial for Unitt, advised that having a fan in her cell could help manage body temperature, and stated, “Please follow my recommendations.” SAC ¶ 45. Unitt conveyed these two reports to Novoa and Holowacki on March 18, 2016 and April 1, 2016, respectively, and asked that she be able to have an extra fan in her cell. Novoa's initial response was to submit a request for a fan for Unitt. However, when that request was denied by a DOC employee without medical training, Novoa allowed her professional medical judgment to be overruled, thus demonstrating deliberate indifference to Unitt's serious medical condition. Holowacki evinced deliberate indifference by denying Unitt's request, telling her that there was no requirement that the recommendations of outside physicians be followed.

         On May 20, 2016, Unitt was seen by Dr. Groblewski, the statewide medical director for MPCH. On May 25, 2016, Novoa placed another request for Unitt to have a fan. However, on May 25, 2016, during a heat wave, Unitt allegedly suffered a stroke, or cerebrovascular accident (“CVA”), which left her with “further residual right sided weakness and a right facial droop, causing her to lisp for approx. five days.” Id. ¶ 59. In the following days, she allegedly suffered three mini-strokes, or transient ischemic attacks (“TIA”). Unitt was finally provided a fan on June 24, 2016.

         B. Defendant Brown

         Unitt also has adequately pled a § 1983 claim against Brown. On May 27, 2016, two days after suffering a stroke, Unitt went to the “Trauma” office at the insistence of a correctional officer. She was seen by Brown, who did not consult Unitt's medical files. Although Unitt's tongue was swollen, she was lisping, and she had a right facial droop, Brown simply asked Unitt, “[A]part from your normal symptoms of TIAs and strokes, what's new?” Id. ΒΆ 90. Instead of immediately referring Unitt to a physician, Brown simply sent Unitt back to her cell. Because of the heat wave and the conditions in her cell, Unitt allegedly experienced three mini-strokes over the next four days. From these allegations, the court can reasonably infer that, because Unitt showed obvious signs of having suffered a stroke, she had a serious ...

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