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Howell v. Tran

United States District Court, N.D. California

February 26, 2018

KAREEM J. HOWELL, Plaintiff,
C. TRAN, et al., Defendants.


          SUSAN ILLSTON United States District Judge.


         Kareem Howell filed this pro se prisoner's civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. This action is now before the court for consideration of the motion for summary judgment filed by defendants and opposed by Howell. For the reasons discussed below, summary judgment will be granted and judgment entered in defendants' favor.


         The following facts are undisputed unless otherwise noted:

The events and omissions giving rise to this action occurred in the period from July 16, 2015 through September 14, 2015, at the Santa Clara County Jail. At the relevant time, Howell was a prisoner of the State of California and had been transferred from a prison in Folsom to the jail for court proceedings. Docket No. 41 at 2. Also at the relevant time, the three defendants worked at the Santa Clara County Jail. Defendant Tran was a correctional officer working in the jail's mental health housing unit. Docket No. 11 at 2. Defendant Mahaffey was a correctional officer. Id. at 5. Defendant Meyers was a correctional lieutenant. Id. at 7.

         Howell states that he “has a mental disorder and suffers from a frankly severe to extreme degree of psychiatric symptoms of his bipolar [a]ffective disorder condition.” Docket No. 11 at 1. That information is from a July 30, 2014 declaration in support of renewal of involuntary medication, in which the psychiatrist also discussed Howell's many behavioral problems:

The inmate has a history of significant verbal and physical aggression towards Custody Officers, other staff such as nurses and clinicians as well as towards other inmate [sic]. The patient-inmate has received multiple significant Rule Violation Reports related to his symptoms of his bipolar [a]ffective disorder over the course of the last 12 months. In the time interval of records I reviewed from 08/14/2013 through 07/06/2014 the patient-inmate had a total of 5 threats against staff, 4 batteries against staff, 3 indecent exposure and sexual misconduct charges and 3 charges of destruction of property. It is important to note that Mr. Howell patient [sic] was found guilty on all of these Rule Violation Reports. At times his threatening behavior towards Correctional Officers included graphic and detailed threats to gas Correctional Officers by exposing them to infectious bodily fluids in an involuntary fashion, to stab Correctional Officers in the neck, to murder the families of Correctional Officers.

Docket No. 40-1 at 4.

         When Howell arrived at the jail on July 16, 2015, he was medically screened by medical staff and then placed in the maximum security housing unit. Docket No. 41 at 3; see also Docket No. 64-3 at 1-2. The Classification Unit[1] determined that Howell required maximum security housing based on, among other things, his criminal history and prison history, including his “highly assaultive acts against other inmates and staff while incarcerated, ” such as his five assaults on California state prison staff in the two years preceding his transfer to the jail. Docket No. 49 at 3. When Howell arrived at the jail, the mental health staff recommended that he be housed according to the Classification Unit's decision. See Id. at 3-4. There is no evidence that any defendant was in the Classification Unit.

         Howell was not given his psychiatric medications for several days after his arrival at the jail. Id. When he filed a grievance about the medications, he was informed that medical staff “‘has to review your records from CDCR and verify your medications if you are prescribed any.'” Docket No. 41 at 3. His medications were restarted on July 19, 2015. Docket No. 64-3 at 18. There is no evidence that any defendant was responsible for Howell's medication.

         As soon as he was housed in maximum security, Howell questioned his assignment and expressed his intent to get out of maximum security by smearing feces around his cell. Docket No. 49 at 3. The medical records contain numerous notations throughout Howell's stay at the jail of episodes of Howell smearing feces/urine in his cell, pushing feces/urine under the cell door, and threatening to throw urine and feces onto correctional staff (also referred to as “gassing” the staff). See Docket No. 64-3; see also Docket No. 48 at 3. The records also state that, shortly after his arrival, Howell put his clothes into the toilet to express his displeasure with having been housed in maximum security, and said he would continue doing so until he was rehoused. See Docket No. 64-3 at 12.

         In the maximum security housing unit, Howell lived in a small cell, with a door with a window that looked out into a hall. Docket No. 61 at 2. He was allowed out of his cell for an hour every other day to another area for his recreation time; the other area also was a small room with a telephone and a toilet, with the door left open so the inmate could come and go to the adjacent shower. Id. Howell states that these conditions had a deleterious effect on his mental health, including causing anxiety attacks, depression, and suicidal and self-harm thoughts. Id. at 3.

         1. Defendant Meyers

         Howell filed grievances about his conditions and his perceived lack of adequate mental health care. Defendant Meyers reviewed the written complaints. Docket No. 41 at 3. Howell asserts that Meyers “turned a blind eye” to his grievances and “failed to get the plaintiff help, even after the plaintiff cut open both of his wrist[s] and documented that he was suicidal.” Id. at 10.

         Lieutenant Meyers' name can only be read on two inmate grievance forms. See Docket No. 11 at 23, 25. Both grievances were dated July 18, just two days after Howell arrived at the jail, and both complained about his housing. Lieutenant Meyers signed the forms as the facility commander/designee and concurred in the responses already written by lower level staff members. On one grievance form, (a) the first responding officer wrote on July 18 that Classification had determined Howell's housing and a mental health technician had cleared him to return to his cell; and (b) a supervisor wrote on July 23 that “you were evaluated by mental health and not deemed to utilize [sic] a mental health housing. You're a max security inmate based on your behavior and prior custody history. Your housing designation is suitable for your behavior.” Docket No. 11 at 23. On the grievance form, lieutenant Meyers concurred and wrote that “[m]ental health will continue to be available to you.” Id. On the other grievance form, (a) the first responding officer wrote on July 18 that they were conducting 15-minute welfare checks, that a mental health tech had cleared Howell to return to his cell with no additional restrictions after interviewing him, and that his housing was determined by Classification and would be reviewed in 30 days; and (b) a supervisor wrote that “you were evaluated by mental health and not given a mental health housing location. You are a max security level inmate whose housing designation is suitable due to your behavior.” Id. at 25. Lieutenant Meyers concurred with those responses. Id.

         The medical records show that, on the day he wrote these two grievances, Howell was seen by a therapist, who noted that he was in a safety gown (i.e., a “Ferguson gown”) and did “not appear to be a threat to self or others at this time.” Docket No. 64-3 at 17. A clinician also had spoken with him one day earlier. See Id. at 12.

         2. Defendant Mahaffey

         The parties disagree as to exactly what happened on September 1. Howell's version is that C/O Mahaffey came to Howell's cell and accused him of flushing extra clothes down the toilet. Docket No. 41 at 3. Howell denies that he smeared his feces around his cell on September 1. Id. Shortly thereafter, Howell began to have suicidal thoughts and informed Mahaffey of this, and Mahaffey told him to kill himself. Id. at 4. This caused Howell to become manic and to start “to have a psychotic reaction episode” that he thinks Mahaffey failed to recognize as a sign of mental illness. Id. Howell declares that, as he was asking for mental health attention, Mahaffey opened the food port and pepper sprayed him “directly into his face.” Id. at 5. Howell states that he was ordered to turn around and submit to handcuffs so he could be removed from his cell, and he complied with those “direct orders.” Id. at 5.[2] Elsewhere he states that “no one never (ordered) plaintiff to cuff-up.” Docket No. 61 at 8 (parentheses in source). Howell apparently draws a distinction between what he perceives as lawful direct orders, and other sorts of orders, but he does not fully explain his theory. Howell further states that he “did not resist, or threaten, or disobey any lawful orders.” Docket No. 61-1 at 8. Mahaffey declares that he did not pepper spray Howell. Docket No. 46 at 2. Mahaffey declares that another member of the emergency response team that was assembled to remove Howell from his cell tried to apply pepper spray twice through the food port but Howell blocked it with his buttocks. Id.

         After handcuffs were applied to him, Howell was removed from his cell and taken to another room in the jail. Howell declares that he was punched in the right eye, causing his eyeglasses to break. Docket No. 41 at 6. In one declaration he states he was punched by “someone” and in another declaration he states it was Mahaffey who punched him. Compare Docket No. 41 at 6 (“someone physically punched the plaintiff into his right eye”), with Docket No. 61-1 at 8 (“Mahaffey punched him in the face/eye”). He does not state how he knows it was Mahaffey who punched him. Mahaffey declares that he did not punch Howell. Docket No. 46 at 2.

         The cell-extraction and transport of Howell were video-recorded. Although some of the actions are obscured by people blocking the view of the action, the video submitted to the court shows the following: First, in the video, Howell displayed no symptoms of having been hit with pepper spray in the facial area, i.e., his eyes were not watering, he made no attempt to rub his eyes or face with his hands in the time before the handcuffs were applied, he made no attempt to rub his eyes or face on his shoulders after he was in waist chains, he did not have a hoarse voice, and he did not cough, wheeze or spit. His orange jail uniform also did not appear to have any moisture marks on it, as might have occurred if enough pepper spray had landed on the clothing. He does not mention having been pepper sprayed. Second, the video does not show anyone punching him and does show that he could not have seen who would have punched him if he had been punched. The video shows that Howell was made to walk in an unusual manner, apparently for maximum control by the escorting officers: Howell was bent over at ¶ 90-degree angle at the waist, with his face facing the ground, and was walked backwards (with buttocks first) with several officers holding onto him throughout the walk. He was walked down a hall, onto an elevator, down another hall, and into another cell, where the handcuffs were removed and replaced with waist restraints. He then was locked in the new room with assurances that someone had requested medical staff to check on him. The video does not show anyone punching or hitting Howell. Indeed, at the place he claims he was punched and a punch supposedly can be heard (at minute 1:33 on the recording), see Docket No. 61 at 8, Howell is still bent over at ΒΆ 90-degree angle and still wearing his glasses. An officer is holding his head with two hands to control him, and (at about minute 1:55), Howell's glasses are jostled and then fall off, while the officer is still holding Howell's head with two hands. A couple of that officer's fingers are in the area of Howell's face and may have resulted in him being poked in the eye, but the videotape does not show anyone punching Howell. Nor, contrary to Howell's assertion, is there the sound of him being punched. Third, the video has some statements by the officers and by Howell, ...

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