Rodriguez v. Plymouth Ambulance Service

Decision Date18 August 2009
Docket NumberNo. 06-4260.,06-4260.
Citation577 F.3d 816
PartiesAngel L. RODRIGUEZ, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. PLYMOUTH AMBULANCE SERVICE, et al., Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit

Tyler E. Gellasch (argued), Marc R. Kadish, Mayer Brown LLP, Chicago, IL, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Frank W. Nagorka (argued), Chicago, IL, pro se.

Before POSNER, RIPPLE and EVANS, Circuit Judges.

RIPPLE, Circuit Judge.

Angel Rodriguez, proceeding in forma pauperis, filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Plymouth Ambulance Service, St. Agnes Hospital, Waupun Memorial Hospital and various Plymouth employees. Mr. Rodriguez claims that the medical providers, while acting under color of state law, violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment by exhibiting deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs. The district court, screening the complaint under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B) and 1915A(b)(1), dismissed the case for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. For the reasons given in this opinion, we affirm in part and vacate and remand in part the judgment of the district court.


Mr. Rodriguez is an inmate at the Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution ("KMCI") in Wisconsin. On October 8, 2005, he began spitting up blood and experiencing abdominal pain. An ambulance from the Plymouth Ambulance Service ("Plymouth"), with emergency medical technician-paramedics ("EMT") Mike Lubbert and Nadie Becker aboard, arrived at KMCI to transport Mr. Rodriguez to St. Agnes Hospital ("St. Agnes"). In the ambulance, Mr. Lubbert inserted a temporary intravenous line ("IV") into Mr. Rodriguez's right arm. The IV caused Mr. Rodriguez pain, and he notified Mr. Lubbert and Ms. Becker.

Mr. Rodriguez also complained about the "serious pain" he was experiencing to the nurses at the emergency department of St. Agnes and asked that they adjust the IV. R.1 at 6. However, Mr. Rodriguez was informed by a nurse that St. Agnes did not have an active medical account with the prison system and that he therefore would be transferred to Waupun Memorial Hospital ("Waupun Memorial"). During the hour that Mr. Rodriguez waited to be transferred, he continued to experience pain.2

At Waupun Memorial, Mr. Rodriguez informed the nurses that he was in pain from the IV. The nurses flushed and adjusted the IV, causing his arm to bleed profusely and causing him "more severe pain." R.1 at 6A. The IV was not removed until four days after its insertion. By that time, Mr. Rodriguez's arm was swollen and completely immobile. When he complained to the staff at Waupun Memorial and requested pain relief medication, they provided him with an ice bag and stated that they could do nothing more. Id.

Upon his return to KMCI, the prison's medical staff noticed that Mr. Rodriguez's arm was severely infected and that pus was oozing from the site where the IV had been inserted. After running a test, the staff determined that Mr. Rodriguez had contracted methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus. Mr. Rodriguez was treated at the prison with antibiotics, but he continues to experience pain in his arm.


The district court took the view that the allegations of the complaint arguably suggest that the named defendants had operated under the color of state law. Relying on our decisions in Burrell v. City of Mattoon, 378 F.3d 642, 650 (7th Cir.2004), and Proffitt v. Ridgway, 279 F.3d 503, 507 (7th Cir.2002), the court based its conclusion on the principles that a private person can become liable under section 1983 by conspiring with a public official to deprive a person of a constitutional right or by becoming a willful participant with the state or its agents in such a deprivation.

The district court then turned to the merits of Mr. Rodriguez's Eighth Amendment claim. It determined that there was no arguable basis for relief and dismissed the complaint.


This case is significantly more complex than the district court's opinion suggests. To ensure clarity of analysis and of presentation, we shall discuss the principles of law that guide our decision in Sections A through C and then apply those principles to the facts of this case in Section D.


As a threshold matter, we shall address the appropriate standard of review and the sufficiency of Mr. Rodriguez's complaint.

We review de novo a district court's dismissal of a complaint under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2) and 1915A(b)(1). DeWalt v. Carter, 224 F.3d 607, 611-12 (7th Cir.2000); Sanders v. Sheahan, 198 F.3d 626, 626 (7th Cir.1999). We must accept the facts alleged in Mr. Rodriguez's complaint as true and draw all reasonable inferences in Mr. Rodriguez's favor. See DeWalt, 224 F.3d at 612.

The sufficiency of a complaint is governed by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a). That rule provides that to state a claim for relief, a complaint must contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). The Supreme Court has stated that "[t]o survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to `state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, ___ U.S. ___, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. 1955). Additionally, because Mr. Rodriguez filed his complaint without the assistance of counsel, we construe liberally the factual allegations of his complaint. See Wynn v. Southward, 251 F.3d 588, 592 (7th Cir.2001). The complaint in this case is certainly adequate under these standards.

We do note, however, that Mr. Rodriguez mentions in the text of his pro se complaint several individuals whom he believes were responsible for his injury, but whose names he does not know. In Billman v. Indiana Department of Corrections, 56 F.3d 785 (7th Cir.1995), we addressed at some length the principles that must govern our consideration of this situation:

Ordinarily a tort victim who does not know who the tortfeasor is cannot sue. To know that one has been injured tortiously but not by whom is a ground for tolling the statute of limitations, but it is not a ground for filing suit before the plaintiff knows who injured him and who therefore should be named as the defendants. But this is not an ordinary case. Billman is a prison inmate. His opportunities for conducting a precomplaint inquiry are, we assume, virtually nil.... Even without doing any investigating, Billman knew enough to know that a terrible thing had been done to him. But he did not know enough to identify the culprits or to determine whether they had the confluence of knowledge ... and power ... necessary to hold them liable for inflicting a cruel and unusual punishment.

We do not think that the children's game of pin the tail on the donkey is a proper model for constitutional tort law. If a prisoner makes allegations that if true indicate a significant likelihood that someone employed by the prison system has inflicted cruel and unusual punishment on him, and if the circumstances are such as to make it infeasible for the prisoner to identify that someone before filing his complaint, his suit should not be dismissed as frivolous. The principle is not limited to prisoner cases. It applies to any case in which, usually because the plaintiff has been injured as the consequence of the actions of an unknown member of a collective body, identification of the responsible party may be impossible without pretrial discovery.... Of course, eventually the plaintiff must discover the names of the defendants in order to serve summonses on them and thus establish the court's personal jurisdiction, without which the suit must be dismissed. But his initial inability to identify the injurers is not by itself a proper ground for the dismissal of the suit. Dismissal would gratuitously prevent him from using the tools of pretrial discovery to discover the defendants' identity.

Our point is not that Billman should be given a break because he lacks legal skills. Or that his complaint should, like any complaint governed by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, be read generously.... Our point is that because Billman is a prisoner he may not be in a position to identify the proper defendants, or all of them, in his complaint.... We think it is the duty of the district court to assist him, within reason, to make the necessary investigation.

Id. at 789-90 (citations omitted).


Mr. Rodriguez brought this claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. To state a claim under this section, the plaintiff must establish the deprivation of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States. Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 330-31, 106 S.Ct. 662, 88 L.Ed.2d 662 (1986). He also must show that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under the color of state law. Reynolds v. Jamison, 488 F.3d 756, 764 (7th Cir.2007). We now examine the two basic principles of section 1983 jurisprudence that must govern our decision: (1) that there is no respondeat superior liability under section 1983 and (2) that a plaintiff must show that a private entity acted under the color of state law to state a claim under section 1983.


It has long been established that there is no respondeat superior liability under section 1983.3 Although this principle typically surfaces in the context of municipal corporations,4 we have applied the same principle to situations where the employer is an individual.5 The same is true of a private corporation. As we noted in Johnson v. Dossey, 515 F.3d 778 (7th Cir.2008):


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