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Gassel v. Jones

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

May 1, 2017

CHRISTOPHER GASSEL, Plaintiff,
v.
PAUL JONES, MD, et al, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          JOHN A. ROSS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on competing motions for summary judgment filed by Defendant Paul Jones, M.D. (“Defendant”) (Doc. 24) and Plaintiff Christopher Gassel (Doc. 34). Also pending is a Motion for Leave to File Sealed Document filed by Defendant (Doc. 23). As an initial matter the Court will grant Defendant's Motion for Leave to File Sealed Document (Doc. 23), as the documents he seeks to seal, his brief in support of his summary judgment and the exhibits he has submitted in support thereof, include private information relating to treatment Plaintiff has received for medical conditions that are entirely unrelated to this lawsuit. For the following reasons, the Court will deny Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 24); and deny Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 34).

         I. Background

         On October 24, 2016, Plaintiff, an inmate in the custody of the Missouri Department of Corrections (“MDOC”), filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Doc. 1). His complaint, as amended and as relevant, alleges that Defendant, a physician employed by Corizon Medical Services (“Corizon”), was deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs by failing to treat him for a neck injury he suffered in November 2014 (Doc. 4).[1] More specifically, Plaintiff claims that Corizon employees refused to treat his neck injury; and that Defendant refused to treat him on June 25, 2014; September 25, 2014; October 3, 2014; October 10, 2014; and November 13, 2014 (Id. at 5-6). Plaintiff asserts that-between July 16, 2014 and November 17, 2016-he self-declared medical emergencies several times because he was unable to raise his head without experiencing severe pain, and “the dis[c]s of his spine cutting into [his] spinal cord creating severe nerve damage” (Id. at 6). According to Plaintiff, his injuries were so obvious that, on August 24, 2014, an assistant warden ordered the medical department to treat him (Id.). Plaintiff claims that a September 25, 2014 x-ray of his spine then revealed that he urgently needed treatment, but Defendant again refused to see him on September 30, 2014 (Id.). According to Plaintiff, on November 21, 2014, Corizon informed him that “if [he] wanted medical treatment to exhaust [his] grievance process” (Id.). Plaintiff underwent neck surgery in March 2015.[2] (Id. at 5). He claims that the delay in treatment caused him unnecessary pain, as well as severe and permanent nerve damage, physical disfigurement, and loss of muscle tone (Id. at 5-6). For relief, he seeks compensatory damages and an order requiring Corizon to provide him medical treatments that his surgeon has recommended (Id. at 7).

         Defendant now moves for summary judgment, arguing that Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a) (“PLRA”) before bringing this action (Doc. 24). Plaintiff has also filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting that he is entitled to judgment on the merits because the undisputed medical evidence establishes that Defendant was deliberately indifferent to his medical needs (Doc. 34).

         II. Summary Judgment Standard

         The Court may grant a motion for summary judgment 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); Peterson v. Kopp, 754 F.3d 594, 598 (8th Cir. 2014). A moving party bears the burden of informing the Court of the basis of its motion. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once the moving party discharges this burden, the nonmoving party must set forth specific facts demonstrating that there is a dispute as to a genuine issue of material fact, not the “mere existence of some alleged factual dispute.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

         In passing on a motion for summary judgment, the Court must view the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 331. The Court's function is not to weigh the evidence but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. “Credibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge.” Torgerson v. City of Rochester, 643 F.3d 1031, 1042 (8th Cir. 2011) (quoting Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000)).

         Where parties file cross-motions for summary judgment, each summary judgment motion must be evaluated independently to determine whether a genuine issue of material fact exists and whether the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Husinga v. Federal-Mogul Ignition Co., 519 F.Supp.2d 929, 942 (S.D. Iowa 2007). “[T]he filing of cross motions for summary judgment does not necessarily indicate that there is no dispute as to a material fact, or have the effect of submitting the cause to a plenary determination on the merits.” Wermager v. Cormorant Twp. Bd., 716 F.2d 1211, 1214 (8th Cir. 1983).

         III. Defendant's Summary Judgment Motion

         In his Motion for Summary Judgment, Defendant argues that Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies before he filed this lawsuit, as is required by the PLRA (Doc. 24). In Defendant's view, Plaintiff failed to properly exhaust his administrative remedies because he did not file an informal resolution request (“IRR”) within fifteen days of his neck injury (Doc. 25 at 4-5). In support of his motion, Defendant has submitted Plaintiff's grievance records which reveal the following relevant facts. On May 15, 2015, while he was housed at the Moberly Correctional Center (“MCC”), Plaintiff filed an IRR complaining about the treatment he was receiving for a neck injury (Docs. 25.1; 25.2 at 20-26).[3] In his IRR, Plaintiff stated that he had injured his neck in November 2014; that Defendant and other prison medical staff had repeatedly told him nothing was wrong with him, and refused to evaluate him or treat him for the injury; and that he had been threatened with discipline if he continued to self-declare emergencies for symptoms arising out of the injury. Plaintiff further indicated that he had been unable to hold his head up without experiencing severe pain and loss of feeling in his left arm, left chest, and the left side of his face. He also reported that Defendant had refused to see him on at least three occasions, instead telling him he had only a pinched muscle and prescribing him ibuprofen and muscle rubs. According to the IRR, at that time, Plaintiff was experiencing muscle spasms, and his left pectoral and left triceps muscles were severely atrophied. Plaintiff also stated that an MRI had revealed severe damage to his spine, and that he had undergone extensive neck surgery in March 2015, or eight months after he first sought care for his injury. In addition, he indicated that, as of the date of his IRR, he was still unable to use his left pectoral or left triceps muscles, and he was experiencing facial numbness. He reported that he continued to suffer great pain, and that he was not being provided medications and physical therapy that his surgeon had prescribed (Doc. 25.2 at 20-26).

         On June 9, 2015, before he received a response to his IRR, Plaintiff was transferred to the Jefferson City Correctional Center (Doc. 25.1 at 4). In July 2015, Plaintiff filed a formal grievance, again complaining that he was receiving inadequate treatment for his neck injury (Doc. 25.2 at 17-19). In his grievance, Plaintiff stated that he was being denied pain medications and muscle relaxers his surgeon had prescribed; that Corizon physicians had not been properly evaluating him and sometimes not even seeing him; and that Defendant was refusing to see him or follow his surgeon's orders (Id. at 18-19). On August 28, 2015, Defendant, in his role as the MCC Medical Director, denied Plaintiff's grievance on the grounds that he had not filed his IRR and grievance until more than a year after his neck injury, and that he had received appropriate medical care (Id. at 16). Plaintiff appealed the denial of his grievance (Id. at 15). His appeal was thereafter denied with the following explanation:

I understand your one original IRR complaint to be you contend that you injured your neck area in July 2014 after jumping down off the top bunk. You state you did not receive the care you needed.
Upon review of your medical record, grievance records and investigation of your concern I found this grievance was not filed per MDOC policy. Per policy any offender who wishes to file a grievance on a removable issue should do so within 15 calendar days from the date of the alleged incident. Your record notes that you filed this grievance on May 22, 2015 well over the 15 calendar days per ...

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