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Crawford v. United States

United States District Court, N.D. West Virginia, Clarksburg

June 4, 2019

KIMBERLY CRAWFORD, as Administratrix for the Estate of Arvel Crawford, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING LEAVE TO FILE SUPPLEMENTAL RESPONSE [ECF NO. 15] AND GRANTING MOTION TO DISMISS [ECF NO. 8]

          THOMAS S. KLEEH UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pending before the Court is the United States of America's Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction [ECF No. 8]. It is now ripe for consideration. For the reasons discussed below, the Court GRANTS the motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         The Plaintiff, Kimberly Crawford (“Plaintiff”), filed a complaint against the United States of America (the “Government”) on November 22, 2017, as Administratrix for the Estate of her son, Arvel Crawford. ECF No. 1. She alleges one count of negligence under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”) based on her belief that the Government failed to operate USP-Hazelton (“Hazelton”) in a reasonably safe manner, leading to her incarcerated son's death. Id.

         On February 13, 2018, United States District Judge Irene M. Keeley issued a First Order and Notice Regarding Discovery and Scheduling. ECF No. 6. On March 14, 2018, the Government filed its Motion to Dismiss. ECF No. 8. Judge Keeley then stayed all deadlines pending resolution of the motion. ECF No. 13. On October 31, 2018, Plaintiff moved for leave to file a supplemental response to the Government's motion to dismiss, averring that James “Whitey” Bulger's murder at Hazelton indicates the serious problems at the prison and warrants the filing of a supplemental response. ECF No. 15. On December 1, 2018, the case was transferred to United States District Judge Thomas S. Kleeh. ECF No. 16.

         B. Factual Background

         Hazelton is a federal prison located in Preston County, West Virginia. ECF No. 1 at ¶ 1. Arvel Crawford was incarcerated at Hazelton from 2014 until his death on March 6, 2015. Id. ¶ 6. On that date, another inmate, the identity of whom is unknown to Plaintiff, used a shiv to slice Mr. Crawford's throat and kill him. Id. ¶¶ 8, 11. Plaintiff alleges that the Government owed a duty of care to all inmates and that the duty included ensuring that contraband, such as a shiv, was not created or carried on the grounds by inmates. Id. ¶ 21. As such, the Government breached its duty when it allowed another inmate to create and/or possess a shiv, which was then used to kill Mr. Crawford. Id. ¶ 22. Plaintiff's counsel made repeated requests to the Government in an effort to learn the factual details surrounding Mr. Crawford's death, but the Government has not provided them with any information. Id. ¶¶ 9-10. Before bringing this suit, Plaintiff filed an administrative claim against the Government, which was denied. Id. ¶¶ 14, 17.

         C. Briefing by the Parties

         1. The Government's Motion [ECF Nos. 8, 9]

         The Government moved to dismiss the action based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Generally, federal courts cannot hear suits against the federal government unless the government expressly consents by waiving sovereign immunity. ECF No. 9 at 4. The FTCA is a narrow exception to this general rule. Id. at 5. The Government believes the “discretionary function exception” to the FTCA applies here. Id. at 6. This exception provides immunity from liability for its agents' and employees' performance of duties involving discretionary decisions. Id.

         The Government cites cases in which this Court, the United States Supreme Court, and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals have found that negligence lawsuits involving prisoner-on-prisoner violence have fallen into the discretionary function exception. Id. at 7-11. This is because there is no explicit directive as to how the Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) should fulfill its obligation to protect inmates. Id. at 8. The Government attached an affidavit from Eric Howell (“Howell”), the Deputy Captain at Hazelton, in which Howell states that he is “familiar with the regulations, policies, procedures, and general practices used by the BOP to limit, detect, and control contraband weapons” and that “[t]here is no specific statute, regulation, or policy that dictates how BOP employees” are to do so. ECF No. 9-1 at ¶¶ 5, 8. Specifically, he writes, “there is no statute, regulation, or policy that mandates when or how BOP employees will physically search inmates in the common area of a housing unit to detect contraband weapons.” Id. ¶ 6. He also states that Mr. Crawford was not separated from his attacker because there was no record of his requesting protective custody or being involved in another altercation. Id. ¶ 12. Attached to Howell's affidavit are Mr. Crawford's inmate records, including an incident report sheet from the altercation that led to his death. Id. at 5-16.

         2. Plaintiff's Response [ECF No. 11]

         Plaintiff argues that she is entitled to discovery relating to policies and procedures regarding weapons, inmate patdowns, and body searches at Hazelton - and to see whether they were followed. ECF No. 11 at 7. Plaintiff cites a Fourth Circuit case, Rich v. United States, 811 F.3d 140 (4th Cir. 2015), in which the court found that discovery was necessary to determine whether adequate patdowns or searches occurred before an inmate was attacked in the Special Housing Unit recreation cages at Hazelton. ECF No. 11 at 4-6. Furthermore, Plaintiff argues that under Rich, even if the facts show that the manner of conducting patdowns or searching for contraband weapons is discretionary, subject matter jurisdiction may exist if the conduct is marked by individual carelessness or laziness. Id. Plaintiff's response also provides a timeline detailing her numerous failed attempts to gain information from the BOP about what happened to Mr. Crawford. Id. at 2-4. She then “had no choice” but to file the lawsuit without any factual information before the statute of limitations ran out. Id. at 4.

         3. The Government's Reply [ECF No. 14]

         The Government argues that Plaintiff is not entitled to leverage discovery as a “fishing expedition in the hopes of discovering some basis of jurisdiction.” ECF No. 14 at 2. Plaintiff, the Government argues, has not met her burden in establishing jurisdiction. Id. The Government reiterates that it cannot be sued unless it consents by specifically waiving sovereign immunity, that the FTCA is a narrow exception to this, and that the FTCA itself includes an exception for discretionary actions. Id. at 2-5.

         Decisions about how to safeguard prisoners, the Government argues, are generally discretionary. Id. at 4. The Government distinguishes Rich because Rich involved policies and procedures for inmate patdowns and searches in the Special Housing Unit. Id. at 6. In contrast, Mr. Crawford was attacked in the common area of a general population housing unit (the “general population”), where prison officials have broad discretion to decide when to search inmates for contraband. Id. The Government also argues that Plaintiff has not established that discovery is necessary and that the Government should not be exposed to extensive rounds of discovery. Id. at 9.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Rule 12 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that “[i]f the court determines at any time that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, the court must dismiss the action.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(h)(3). The burden of proving subject matter jurisdiction on a motion to dismiss lies with the party asserting jurisdiction. CSX Transp., Inc. v. Gilkison, No. 5:05CV202, 2009 WL 426265, at *2 (N.D. W.Va. Feb. 19, 2009). A trial court may consider evidence by affidavit without converting the proceeding into one for summary judgment. Adams v. Bain, 697 F.2d 1213, 1219 (4th Cir. 1982). No. presumptive truthfulness attaches to the plaintiff's ...


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