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Washington v. Denney

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, St. Joseph Division

June 26, 2017

ECCLESIASTICAL DENZEL WASHINGTON Plaintiff,
v.
LARRY DENNEY, et al. Defendants.

          ORDER

          NANETTE K. LAUGHREY United States District Judge

         Following entry of a jury verdict against them, [Doc. 171], Defendants Denney, Pash, Prudden, and Richey renew their request for judgment as a matter of law, and in the alternative, they request a new trial. [Doc. 180');">180]. For the following reasons, the motion is denied.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff Ecclesiastical Denzel Washington brought this case for violation of his Eighth Amendment rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against various officials at Crossroads Correctional Center where he has been confined since 2010. Washington alleged that these officials were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs by failing to take reasonable steps to abate the risk of harm that secondhand smoke poses to him. Washington alleged that his long history of asthma and other respiratory conditions exacerbates these risks.

         At trial, Washington presented evidence about his medical conditions, as well as evidence that he is regularly exposed to tobacco smoke due to smoking inside Crossroads despite an official policy prohibiting smoking inside the prison; Crossroads' repeated refusal to permit Washington to use a medically prescribed mask; and Crossroads' refusal to assign him a nonsmoking cellmate. After a three-day jury trial, the jury found in Washington's favor and against four of the five defendants: Larry Denney, Ronda Pash, Cyndi Prudden, and Cheryl Richey.[1] The jury awarded $40, 000 in compensatory damages and imposed a total of $71, 000 in punitive damages as follows: $20, 000 against Denney; $25, 000 against Pash; $25, 000 against Prudden; and $1, 000 against Richey. [Doc. 171].

         II. Discussion

         A. Judgment as a Matter of Law

         Defendants argue they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law because there was insufficient evidence to support the jury's verdict.

         “Judgment as a matter of law is appropriate if there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for the non-moving party.” Equal Employment Opportunity Com'n v. Kohler Co., 335 F.3d 766, 772 (8th Cir. 2003) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1)) (internal quotation marks omitted). “[T]he law places a high standard on overturning a jury verdict because of the danger that the jury's rightful province will be invaded when judgment as a matter of law is misused.” Hunt v. Neb. Public Power Dist., 282 F.3d 1021, 1029 (8th Cir. 2002) (internal citations omitted). “Where conflicting inferences reasonably can be drawn from the evidence, it is the role of the jury, not the court, to determine which inference shall be drawn.” Id. The Eighth Circuit describes the district court's task on such a motion as requiring the court to:

(1) consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, (2) assume that all conflicts in the evidence were resolved in favor of the prevailing party, (3) assume as proved all facts that the prevailing party's evidence tended to prove, (4) give the prevailing party the benefit of all favorable inferences that may be reasonably drawn from the facts provided. That done, the court must then deny the motion if reasonable persons could differ as to the conclusions to be drawn from the evidence.

E.E.O.C., 335 F.3d at 772 (internal quotation marks omitted). “[I]t is improper to overturn a jury verdict unless, after giving the nonmoving party the benefit of all reasonable inferences and resolving all conflicts in the evidence in the nonmoving party's favor, there still exists a complete absence of probative facts to support the conclusion reached so that no reasonable juror could have found for the moving party.” Hunt, 282 F.2d at 1029.

         1. The 1983 Verdict

         Washington's Eighth Amendment claim required him to prove that (1) he suffered from an objectively serious medical need, and (2) that Defendants knew of the need but deliberately disregarded it. Johnson v. Hamilton, 452 F.3d 967, 972-73 (8th Cir. 2006) (citing Dulany v. Carnahan, 132 F.3d 1234, 1239 (8th Cir. 1997)). The deliberate indifference prong requires that the defendant knew of and disregarded “an excessive risk to inmate health or safety” and knew that his “conduct was inappropriate in light of that risk.” Letterman v. Does, 789 F.3d 856, 861 (8th Cir. 2015). The plaintiff “need not necessarily show that the actor actually knew of the substantial risk of harm to an inmate; the district court can infer knowledge if the risk was obvious.” Id. For instance, “the obvious inadequacy of a response . . . may support an inference that the officer recognized the inappropriateness of his conduct.” Krout v. Goemmer, 583 F.3d 557 (8th Cir. 2009). “For a claim of deliberate indifference, ‘the prisoner must show more than negligence, more even than gross negligence, and mere disagreement with treatment decisions does not rise to the level of a constitutional violation.” Popoalii v. Crandell, 56 F.3d 35, 37 (8th Cir. 1995)).

         Defendants argue that the only evidence Washington offered “was that he believed they were deliberately indifferent, ” and his mere belief is not sufficient evidence. [Doc. 180');">180, p. 3]. The Court rejects this argument because the evidence offered at trial shows otherwise. At trial, Washington presented evidence that he has filed at least eight informal resolution requests and grievance appeals related to his respiratory condition and secondhand smoke. Documents attached to those requests and appeals showed how smoke affects Washington's asthma, leading to attacks that were greater in frequency and severity. Defendants admitted at trial that they knew about Washington's asthma and smoke's effects on it. See Trial Tr. [Doc. 183, p. 139:19-21; p. 148:25-149:2 (Defendant Pash admitting that Washington made known his concerns about secondhand smoke through grievances)]; [Doc. 184, p. 230:9-16 (Defendant Denney admitting that he knew about Washington's smoke concerns and asthma based on his written reports)]; [Doc. 184, p. 292:8-21 (Defendant Prudden admitting she has seen documents showing Washington's respiratory conditions and smoke concerns)]; [Doc. 185, p. 384:24-385:3; 386:12-387:17 (Defendant Richey ...


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