McGrath v. Strain, CIVIL ACTION NO. 12-956

CourtUnited States District Courts. 5th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Louisiana)
Writing for the CourtJOSEPH C. WILKINSON
Decision Date20 August 2012
Docket NumberCIVIL ACTION NO. 12-956




Date: August 20, 2012


Plaintiff, John Thomas McGrath, Sr., is a prisoner currently incarcerated in the St. Tammany Parish Jail in Covington, Louisiana. He filed this complaint pro se and in forma pauperis pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain. He alleges that while incarcerated in the jail in March 2012, he was unconstitutionally punished by being handcuffed to a bench for eight (8) hours. He alleges that during that time he urinated on himself because he was not allowed to use the bathroom, he was forced to clean up the mess, and his unattended personal property was stolen by other inmates. He seeks monetary damages to compensate him for his stolen property and for "public humiliation" and "modern day slavery." Record Doc. No. 1 (Complaint at ¶ IV and V).

On June 7, 2012, I conducted a telephone conference in this matter. Participating were plaintiff pro se and Gary Hanes, counsel for defendants. Plaintiff was sworn and testified for all purposes permitted by Spears v. McCotter, 766 F.2d 179 (5th Cir. 1985), and its progeny. Since that time, an answer has been filed not only on behalf of the

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original defendant, Sheriff Strain, but also for four of his deputies, Mark LeBlanc, Carl Periloux, Jr., James P. Wigstrom, Jr. and Joseph Strain. Record Doc. No. 14.


McGrath testified that he is currently incarcerated in the St. Tammany Parish Jail based upon a parole revocation on February 22, 2012. He stated that he had been previously convicted of bank fraud in 2009, Record Doc. No. 7 at p. 1, and subsequently paroled and that he is also awaiting trial on a new burglary charge.

As to the instant lawsuit, McGrath confirmed that he asserts two kinds of claims: (1) He was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment when deputies handcuffed him to a bench for eight (8) hours and would not allow him to use the restroom. (2) His personal property was stolen by another inmate during his eight-hour detention on the bench.

As to his first claim, McGrath testified that on or about March 1, 2012, he was waking up at about the same time that deputies were conducting a shakedown for routine security purposes in the dorm in which he was being housed. He stated that he asked to go to the bathroom, but he was not allowed to go during the shakedown, "so me and Sgt. LeBlanc had like a confrontation, so I was cuffed to a bench." McGrath described the confrontation as follows: "Me and him just had some words. I was trying to go to the bathroom, and he escorted me out of C-500, and I was chained up to a bench." Plaintiff could not remember the exact words he exchanged with Sgt. LeBlanc, except that he

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asked Sgt. LeBlanc if he could go to the bathroom, and LeBlanc told him, "No, it was his responsibility and that I could use the bathroom when I was directed to. . . . like I couldn't use the bathroom without his permission." McGrath said he responded to Sgt. LeBlanc by telling him "that wasn't fair . . . . [and that] he should just let me use the bathroom, it wasn't that big of a deal."

Despite this admitted verbal resistance, McGrath said he complied with Sgt. LeBlanc's order to leave the dorm area for the shakedown. He conceded, however, that when first told to leave the dorm for the shakedown, he asked LeBlanc if he could go to the bathroom before leaving the dorm and then talked back to LeBlanc when he was told that he could not.

McGrath stated that Sgt. LeBlanc escorted him out of the dorm and to the bench, where deputies stood around laughing at him, "playing more of like a power game . . . like he had the authority to do what he wanted me to do. In actuality, he wasn't fair about the situation." McGrath said both of his wrists were handcuffed to an 18-inch long chain attached to the bench, where he was kept for about eight (8) hours as punishment for his verbal altercation with LeBlanc. He said he was brought back to his dorm when the deputies' eight-hour shift ended and other deputies came on duty.

McGrath said he urinated on himself while handcuffed to the bench, and that when Sgt. LeBlanc and other deputies saw him at about 2 a.m., they all laughed and made fun

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of him. He testified that LeBlanc pulled out a can of mace and told him if he did not clean up the mess he had made, he would be sprayed with the mace. McGrath said that LeBlanc did not spray him with the mace; instead, one of the deputies unhooked the cuffs, gave him a mop, and McGrath cleaned up the mess within about two or three minutes, before he was handcuffed to the bench again. He stated that he was cuffed to the bench from about 10 p.m. until 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. the next morning.

McGrath complained that his placement on the bench was not "fair," but he conceded that he suffered no physical injuries while he was on the bench.

As to his second claim, McGrath testified that only a few hours before the incident, he had gone to the prison commissary, where he bought snack foods and personal hygiene items, which he then stored in an unlocked box under his bed. He stated that when he returned to the dorm after being held on the punishment bench for eight hours, all of his recently purchased items, together with his sheet, the blanket from his bunk and his extra underwear, were missing. He testified that another inmate had stolen his property, though he did not know specifically who had done it. McGrath said he made a complaint about the theft through the jail administrative remedies procedure, but he received no response. He acknowledged that his sheet and blanket were replaced, and he repurchased his stolen clothing items. He estimated that the value of the stolen items was about $25 to $30.

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McGrath said that when he returned to the dorm from the bench, he changed his clothes, but the other inmates were making fun of him and laughing at him for having urinated on himself. He claimed that the heckling by other inmates has escalated since that time.



"A federal court may dismiss a claim in forma pauperis 'if satisfied that the action is frivolous or malicious.'" Moore v. McDonald, 30 F.3d 616, 620 (5th Cir. 1994) (quoting former 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d), now incorporated in 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e), as amended). A complaint is frivolous "if it lacks an arguable basis in law or fact." Davis v. Scott, 157 F.3d 1003, 1005 (5th Cir. 1998); Reeves v. Collins, 27 F.3d 174, 176 (5th Cir. 1994). The law "'accords judges not only the authority to dismiss a claim based on an indisputably meritless legal theory, but also the unusual power to pierce the veil of the complaint's factual allegations and dismiss those claims whose factual contentions are clearly baseless.'" Macias v. Raul A. (Unknown), Badge No. 153, 23 F.3d 94, 97 (5th Cir. 1994) (quoting Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 327 (1989)).

The purpose of a Spears hearing is to dig beneath the conclusional allegations of a pro se complaint, to ascertain exactly what the prisoner alleges occurred and the legal basis of the claims. Spears, 766 F.2d at 180. "[T]he Spears procedure affords the

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plaintiff an opportunity to verbalize his complaints, in a manner of communication more comfortable to many prisoners." Davis, 157 F.3d at 1005. The information elicited at such an evidentiary hearing is in the nature of an amended complaint or a more definite statement under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(e). Wilson v. Barrientos, 926 F.2d 480, 481 (5th Cir. 1991); Adams v. Hansen, 906 F.2d 192, 194 (5th Cir. 1990). "Upon development of the actual nature of the complaint, it may also appear that no justiciable basis for a federal claim exists." Spears, 766 F.2d at 182. The court may make only limited credibility determinations in a Spears hearing, Norton v. Dimazana, 122 F.3d 286, 292 (5th Cir. 1997) (citing Cay v. Estelle, 789 F.2d 318, 326-27 (5th Cir. 1986), overruled on other grounds by Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 112 S.Ct. 1728 (1992)).

After a Spears hearing, the complaint may be dismissed as legally frivolous if it lacks an arguable basis in law, Jackson v. Vannoy, 49 F.3d 175, 176-77 (5th Cir. 1995); Moore v. Mabus, 976 F.2d 268, 269 (5th Cir. 1992), or "as factually frivolous only if the facts alleged are 'clearly baseless,' . . . [or] when the facts alleged rise to the level of the irrational or wholly incredible." Id. at 270.

"'A complaint lacks an arguable basis in law if it is based on an indisputably meritless legal theory, such as if the complaint alleges the violation of a legal interest which clearly does not exist.'" Davis, 157 F.3d at 1005 (quoting McCormick v. Stalder, 105 F.3d 1059, 1061 (5th Cir. 1997)). "When a complaint raises an arguable question

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of law which the district court ultimately finds is correctly resolved against the plaintiff, dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) is appropriate; however, dismissal under the section 1915(d) standard is not." Moore, 976 F.2d at 269. A prisoner's in forma pauperis complaint which fails to state a claim may be dismissed sua sponte at any time under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2) and 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c)(1).

In this case, plaintiff's complaint may be dismissed under 28 U.S.C. §...

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