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Christian v. Magill

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Rock Hill Division

September 19, 2016

JOHN MAGILL, S.C.D.M.H. in his individual and official capacity, HOLLY SCATURO, Director S.V.P.T.P. in her individual and official capacity, KIMBERLY POHOLCHUK, Program Coordinator S.V.P.T.P, in her individual and official capacity, WARDEN STEVENSON, Warden BRCI in his individual and official capacity, Defendants.



         This matter is before the court on Magistrate Judge Paige J. Gossett's Report and Recommendation (“R&R”), ECF No. 48, that the court grant defendant Warden Stevenson's (“Stevenson”) motion for summary judgment, ECF No. 37, and defendants John Magill (“Magill”), Kimberly Poholchuk (“Poholchuk”), and Holly Scaturo's (“Sacturo, ” together with Magill and Poholchuk, the “SCDMH defendants”) separate motion for summary judgment, ECF No. 40. For the reasons set forth below, the court adopts in part and rejects in part the R&R, and grants in part and denies in part defendants' motions for summary judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Mikel Christian (“plaintiff”) is involuntarily committed to the Sexually Violent Predator Treatment Program (“SVPTP”) pursuant to the South Carolina Sexually Violent Predator Act. See S.C. Code Ann. § 44-48-10. Though the SVPTP is administered through the South Carolina Department of Mental Health (“SCDMH”), individuals committed to the SVPTP are housed at the Broad River Correctional Institution (“BRCI”), a facility run by the South Carolina Department of Corrections (“SCDC”). ECF No. 37-3, Stevenson Aff. ¶ 5.

         Plaintiff filed this pro se action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on August 25, 2015, alleging numerous violations of his constitutional rights in connection with his living conditions, SVPTP food services, SCDMH disciplinary policies, and other aspects of his confinement at BRCI. Plaintiff requests declaratory, injunctive, and monetary relief.

         On February 29, 2016, Stevenson filed a motion for summary judgment. On March 10, 2016, the SCDMH defendants filed a separate motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff responded to both motions on March 21, 2016. Stevenson and the SCDMH defendants filed separate replies on March 31, 2016. On July 8, 2016, the magistrate judge issued the R&R, recommending the court grant defendants' motions for summary judgment. Plaintiff filed objections to the R&R on July 26, 2016. Stevenson filed a reply on July 29, 2016, and the SCDMH defendants filed a separate reply on August 12, 2016.

         II. STANDARD

         A. De Novo Review

         This court is charged with conducting a de novo review of any portion of the magistrate judge's R&R to which specific, written objections are made. 28 U.S.C. 636(b)(1). The court may adopt the portions of the R&R to which the petitioner did not object, as a party's failure to object is accepted as agreement with the conclusions of the magistrate judge. Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 149-50 (1985). The recommendation of the magistrate judge carries no presumptive weight, and it is this court's responsibility to make a final determination. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71 (1976).

         B. Summary Judgment

         Summary judgment is proper “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). “[S]ummary judgment will not lie if the dispute about a material fact is ‘genuine, ' that is, if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. At the summary judgment stage, the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in his favor. Id. at 255.

         C. Pro Se Plaintiff

         Plaintiff is proceeding pro se in this case. Federal district courts are charged with liberally construing complaints filed by pro se litigants to allow the development of a potentially meritorious case. See Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 9-10 (1980). Pro se complaints are therefore held to a less stringent standard than those drafted by attorneys. Id. Liberal construction, however, does not mean that the court can ignore a clear failure in the pleading to allege facts that set forth a cognizable claim. See Weller v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 901 F.2d 387, 390-91 (4th Cir. 1990).


         As noted above, plaintiff's constitutional claims traverse a number of issues related to his confinement. The magistrate judge analyzed the bulk of these claims under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, finding no evidence that the challenged policies and procedures fell outside the acceptable range of professional judgment states are afforded under that clause.[1] R&R at 5-8. Plaintiff objected to these findings by detailing certain restrictions and conditions imposed by the challenged policies and procedures, and providing two declarations in support of his contentions. ECF No. 50, Pl.'s Objections.

         An involuntarily committed person's conditions of confinement are subject to the standards set forth in Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307 (1982). In Youngberg, the Supreme Court recognized that “determining whether a substantive right protected by the Due Process Clause has been violated” requires courts “to balance ‘the liberty of the individual' and ‘the demands of an organized society.'” Id. at 320 (quoting Poe v. Ullman, 367 U.S. 497, 562 (1961) (Harlan, J., dissenting)). In striking this balance, courts weigh “the individual's interest in liberty against the State's asserted reasons for restraining individual liberty.” Id. “[D]ue process requires that the conditions and duration of confinement [for civil detainees] bear some reasonable relation to the purpose for which persons are committed.” Seling v. Young, 531 U.S. 250, 252 (2001).

         Because SVPTP detainees are not committed for purposes of punishment, SVPTP detainees “are entitled to more considerate treatment and conditions of confinement than criminals whose conditions of confinement are designed to punish.” Youngberg, 457 U.S. at 321-22; see also English v. Johns, 2014 WL 555661, at *6 (E.D. N.C. Feb. 11, 2014) (“The Fifth Amendment generally prohibits the federal government from subjecting civilly committed persons to punitive confinement conditions.”), aff'd, 582 F. App'x 229 (4th Cir. 2014), cert. denied, 135 S.Ct. 1564 (2015). However, the state is not required to show that the restrictions and conditions it imposes on civil detainees are justified by “substantial” or “compelling” necessity. Youngberg, 457 U.S. at 322. “To state a claim that conditions of confinement violate constitutional requirements, ‘a plaintiff must show both (1) a serious deprivation of a basic human need; and (2) deliberate indifference to prison conditions on the part of prison officials.'” Haggwood v. Magill, No. 5:15-cv-3271, 2016 WL 4149986, at *2 (D.S.C. Aug. 3, 2016) (quoting Strickler v. Waters, 989 F.2d 1375, 1379 (4th Cir. 1993)).

         Courts are quite clearly not experts in the administration of civil commitment programs, such as the SVPTP, or detention facilities, such as the BRCI. Id. at 322- 23. For this reason, courts must be careful not to encroach on, or unnecessarily restrict, state agencies' exercise of their professional judgment in administering, designing, and maintaining such programs and facilities. Id. Instead, the court's role is to ensure that such professional judgment was, in fact, exercised. Id. A decision pertaining to a civil detainee's conditions of confinement, “if made by a professional, is presumptively valid; liability may be imposed only when the decision by the professional is such a substantial departure from accepted professional judgment, practice, or standards as to demonstrate that the person responsible actually did not base the decision on such a judgment.” Id. at 323.

         As the R&R explains, defendants have provided affidavit testimony addressing a number of the issues identified in plaintiff's amended complaint. R&R at 6-8. The R&R specifically cited evidence explaining the SCDC and SVPTP policies relevant to (1) searches of SVPTP detainees' rooms, (2) double-bunking of SVPTP detainees, (3) SVPTP's use of personal property, and (4) the safety of the meals served to SVPTP detainees. Id.; see also Stevenson Aff. ¶¶ 9-12 (explaining food safety procedures and cleaning and maintenance procedures); ECF No. 40-2, Helff Aff. ¶¶ 3, 4 (outlining enforcement of disciplinary policies among SVPTP committees); ECF No. 40-5, Poholchuk Aff. ¶¶ 2, 3, 7, 10-13 (explaining policies and procedures relating to searches of SVPTP committees' rooms, SVPTP committees' access to legal materials, and food safety): ECF No. 40-7, Scaturo Aff. ¶¶ 10-12 (explaining policies relating to double bunking of SVPTP committees). Though plaintiff's objections and supporting declarations[2] reiterate the restrictions and conditions imposed by these policies, plaintiff makes little, if any, attempt to show how most of these restrictions and conditions represent a “substantial departure” from the accepted range of professional judgment permitted under Youngberg, 457 U.S. at 323.

         Plaintiff certainly has not presented any evidence of how his conditions of confinement compare to conditions imposed by other professionals in the area of prison administration or commitment-based treatment programs. This omission seems forgivable enough, as plaintiff-like the court-likely has little direct knowledge of what constitutes a reasonable exercise of professional judgment in this area of expertise. However, to the extent plaintiff endeavors to show that the conditions of his confinement, in and of themselves, are extreme enough ...

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