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Smith v. Tootell

United States District Court, N.D. California

April 3, 2017

CAREY K. SMITH, Plaintiff,
ELENA TOOTELL, M.D., et al., Defendants.



         Plaintiff, an inmate at San Quentin State Prison (“SQSP”), filed this pro se civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that she has been denied necessary transgender health care.[1] This case is now before the Court for initial review of the pleadings pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. Plaintiff is granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis by separate order.


         A. Standard of Review

         Federal courts must engage in a preliminary screening of cases in which prisoners seek redress from a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). The court must identify cognizable claims or dismiss the complaint, or any portion of the complaint, if the complaint “is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, ” or “seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief.” Id. § 1915A(b). Pro se pleadings must be liberally construed, however. Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dep't, 901 F.2d 696, 699 (9th Cir. 1990).

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires only “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” “Specific facts are not necessary; the statement need only “‘give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'” Erickson v. Pardus, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 2200 (2007) (citations omitted). Although in order to state a claim a complaint “does not need detailed factual allegations, . . . a plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of his ‘entitle[ment] to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. . . . Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1964-65 (2007) (citations omitted). A complaint must proffer “enough facts to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.” Id. at 1974.

         To state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must allege two essential elements: (1) that a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States was violated, and (2) that the alleged violation was committed by a person acting under the color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988).

         B. Legal Claims

         Deliberate indifference to serious medical needs violates the Eighth Amendment's proscription against cruel and unusual punishment. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104 (1976). A “serious medical need” exists if the failure to treat a prisoner's condition could result in further significant injury or the “unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain.” McGuckin v. Smith, 974 F.2d 1050, 1059 (9th Cir. 1992) (citing Estelle, 429 U.S. at 104), overruled in part on other grounds by WMX Technologies, Inc. v. Miller, 104 F.3d 1133, 1136 (9th Cir. 1997) (en banc). A prison official is “deliberately indifferent” if he knows that a prisoner faces a substantial risk of serious harm and disregards that risk by failing to take reasonable steps to abate it. Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 837 (1994).

         Neither negligence nor gross negligence warrant liability under the Eighth Amendment. Id. at 835-36 & n4. An “official's failure to alleviate a significant risk that he should have perceived but did not, . . . cannot under our cases be condemned as the infliction of punishment.” Id. at 838. Instead, “the official's conduct must have been ‘wanton, ' which turns not upon its effect on the prisoner, but rather, upon the constraints facing the official.” Frost v. Agnos, 152 F.3d 1124, 1128 (9th Cir. 1998) (citing Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 302-03 (1991)). Prison officials violate their constitutional obligation only by “intentionally denying or delaying access to medical care.” Estelle, 429 U.S. at 104-05.

         According to the complaint, plaintiff is a transgender inmate. In or around November 2015, plaintiff's primary care physician, defendant Dr. Denise Reyes began accessing plaintiff's mental health records and using the records to deny plaintiff transgender health care, including medication recommended by a specialist. Dr. Reyes removed mental health records from plaintiff's file and replaced them with false progress notes, including notes labeling plaintiff as a “drug seeker” and “sexual deviant who is [at] high risk for HIV.” In August 2016, defendant SQSP chief medical officer Dr. Tootell joined plaintiff's mental health treatment team. Plaintiff informed Dr. Tootell of Dr. Reyes' conduct, and Dr. Tootell refused to intervene. These allegations, liberally construed, state a claim of deliberate indifference as against Dr. Reyes and Dr. Tootell. See Kosilek v. Spencer, 774 F.3d 63, 86 (1st Cir. 2014) (en banc) (untreated symptoms of gender dysphoria can constitute a serious medical need).


         For the foregoing reasons, 1. Plaintiff's complaint states a cognizable Eighth Amendment claim for deliberate indifference to serious medical needs as against Dr. Reyes and Dr. Tootell.

         2. The Clerk shall issue summons and the United States Marshal shall serve, without prepayment of fees, a copy of the complaint and a copy of this order upon the following defendants at San ...

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