Simmat v. U.S. Bureau of Prisons

Decision Date01 July 2005
Docket NumberNo. 03-3361.,03-3361.
Citation413 F.3d 1225
PartiesRon SIMMAT, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. UNITED STATES BUREAU OF PRISONS; G.F. Jackson, Dentist, U.S. Bureau of Prisons; and Reid Elden Stempel, Dentist, U.S. Bureau of Prisons, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Tenth Circuit

Janet Koven Levit, Associate Professor, University of Tulsa College of Law, Tulsa, OK, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Emily B. Metzger, Assistant United States Attorney, (Eric F. Melgren, United States Attorney, with her on the briefs) Wichita, KS, for Defendants-Appellees.

Before KELLY, HARTZ, and McCONNELL, Circuit Judges.

McCONNELL, Circuit Judge.

At least since Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104-06, 97 S.Ct. 285, 50 L.Ed.2d 251 (1976), federal courts have recognized the right of prisoners to relief if prison officials deny them basic medical care, in violation of the Eighth Amendment. In the case of state prisoners, the vehicle for such suits is 42 U.S.C. § 1983, with its jurisdictional predicate, 28 U.S.C. § 1343. See Simmat; Hunt v. Uphoff, 199 F.3d 1220 (10th Cir.1999). In the case of federal prisoners, surprisingly, the vehicle is not so clear. In Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 846, 114 S.Ct. 1970, 128 L.Ed.2d 811 (1994), the Supreme Court stated only that the courts could "grant appropriate relief" on a federal prisoner's Eighth Amendment claim for damages and injunctive relief against prison officials in their individual and official capacities. Some courts have treated such actions as Bivens actions, even when the inmate seeks injunctive relief against officials in their official capacities. See Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388, 91 S.Ct. 1999, 29 L.Ed.2d 619 (1971).1 Others have assumed that there exists a non-statutory basis for injunctive action, perhaps coupled with declaratory relief under the Declaratory Judgment Act, or civil actions in the nature of mandamus.2 In the latter cases, the question arises whether the actions are barred by sovereign immunity. Very often the nature of the claim and the basis for rejecting sovereign immunity are not addressed.3 We believe clarification would be useful.

This case involves an action against prison dentists in their official capacity for injunctive relief. The defendants, the prison dentists and the United States Bureau of Prisons ("BOP"), assert that the action is barred by sovereign immunity. We hold that jurisdiction exists under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 or 1361, that the case is properly denominated an action for relief in the nature of mandamus, authorized under 28 U.S.C. § 1361, and that sovereign immunity is not a bar. We also hold, however, that plaintiff's suit against the prison dentists must be dismissed without prejudice for failure to exhaust his administrative remedies, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 ("PLRA"), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a), and that his claims against the Bureau of Prisons are not properly before us.

I. Background and Facts

Plaintiff-Appellant Ron Simmat was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced by the State of Connecticut to life imprisonment in 1962. Since January 21, 1995, he has been incarcerated in the United States Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas ("USP Leavenworth"). The precise facts and circumstances bearing on Mr. Simmat's problems are not clear on this record, but because Mr. Simmat appeals a grant of summary judgment for the defendants, we will recount the facts in the light most favorable to his case. See Simms v. Oklahoma ex rel. Dep't of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Servs., 165 F.3d 1321, 1326 (10th Cir.1999).

Mr. Simmat suffers from a variety of dental problems, including gum disease, several cavities, and a root that protrudes from his gums. In August 1999, he submitted a request to BOP staff to be placed on the treatment list to see the dentist about a cavity. Dr. Jackson informed him that he had been placed on the list. In November 1999, before getting treatment, Mr. Simmat asked to be placed on the treatment list for a second cavity. Dr. Jackson again informed him that he had been placed on the list. In February 2000, still having received no treatment, Mr. Simmat submitted a third request for an appointment, indicating that he had been waiting since August 1999 and that two of his teeth needed to be treated. Dr. Jackson told him that he was on the treatment list and would be called soon. On April 9, 2000, Mr. Simmat submitted an Inmate Request to Staff form to Dr. Jackson and the Health Services administrator stating that "one of my problem teeth now gives me constant pain, which gets really bad when I lay down." This request concerned a third tooth—number thirty, his "lone chewing molar." Appellant's Supp. Br. 9.

Dr. Jackson examined Mr. Simmat's painful molar on April 13, 2000. He ordered an x-ray, diagnosed periodontal involvement, and noted that the tooth might need to be extracted. He put a "temporary restorative agent" on the tooth and prescribed antibiotics and pain medication. Mr. Simmat alleges that when he asked about a permanent filling, Dr. Jackson told him that he had been "discouraged and reprimanded for providing permanent fillings."

After he treated tooth number thirty, Dr. Jackson removed Mr. Simmat's name from the treatment list. Mr. Simmat saw Dr. Jackson for a follow-up x-ray of tooth number thirty on August 30, 2000. Dr. Jackson did not treat any other teeth at that time, and he asked Mr. Simmat to return for follow-up treatment in two months. Mr. Simmat did not return for follow-up treatment, and he has not seen Dr. Jackson for dental care at any time after August 30, 2000.

Mr. Simmat filed his pro se complaint on December 9, 2002,4 alleging that prison officials denied him adequate dental care in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Complaint, R. Doc. 1 at 5. The complaint named as defendants Dr. Jackson and Dr. Stempel, in their official capacities, as well as the BOP.5 Mr. Simmat alleged that the defendants' refusal to provide proper dental care had caused significant deterioration of his oral health, including multiple infected teeth and, at molar number thirty, an "entire root, right out to its tip, sticking out of [his] gum." Id. Mr. Simmat sought "an order directed to both defendants, or to their successors in office ... specifying that all of plaintiff's dental deficiencies be made good, whether or not procedures required to accomplish that are within currently approved dental procedures within the BOP for its prisoners." Id. at 5-6. He did not seek damages.

The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that sovereign immunity deprived the court of subject matter jurisdiction. In the alternative, the defendants moved for summary judgment on the ground that Mr. Simmat failed to raise a genuine issue of fact on his Eighth Amendment claim.6

The district court held that sovereign immunity did not deprive it of jurisdiction because Mr. Simmat sought only injunctive relief from alleged constitutional violations by federal officials. Nevertheless, the district court held that Mr. Simmat failed to raise a genuine issue of fact regarding deliberate indifference to a serious medical condition, the applicable standard for relief under the Eighth Amendment. See Perkins v. Kan. Dept. of Corrections, 165 F.3d 803, 811 (10th Cir.1999). Mr. Simmat appealed.

On September 3, 2004, this Court appointed counsel for Mr. Simmat and ordered supplemental briefing addressing whether the court had jurisdiction over claims for injunctive relief against prison officials in their official capacities or for injunctive relief against the BOP.

II. Mr. Simmat's Claims Against the Prison Dentists

We turn first to Mr. Simmat's action against the prison dentists, in their official capacities. Until relatively recently, a suit like Mr. Simmat's would have faced serious obstacles deriving from the related doctrines of subject matter jurisdiction and sovereign immunity. The legacy of those restrictions may well account for the confusion courts still seem to experience regarding the legal forms such litigation may take. As will be seen, however, Congress has expanded the jurisdiction of federal district courts and narrowed the scope of sovereign immunity, making suits for injunctive relief against federal officers for constitutional derelictions far more straightforward than they used to be.

A. Jurisdictional Basis for Action Against Prison Officials

Mr. Simmat argues that his claims against the dentists are within the district court's federal question jurisdiction because they arise under the Constitution of the United States. See 28 U.S.C. § 1331. In Bell v. Hood, the Supreme Court explained that "where the complaint ... is so drawn as to seek recovery directly under the Constitution or laws of the United States, the federal court, but for two possible exceptions ... must entertain the suit." 327 U.S. 678, 681-82, 66 S.Ct. 773, 90 L.Ed. 939 (1946). The two "possible exceptions" are claims that "clearly appear[] to be immaterial and made solely for the purpose of obtaining jurisdiction" and claims that are "wholly insubstantial and frivolous." Id. at 682-83, 66 S.Ct. 773

Mr. Simmat's claim easily meets the basic requirements of federal question jurisdiction. Mr. Simmat alleges that the defendants deprived him of adequate medical care by deliberate indifference to his serious dental needs. This claim arises directly under the Constitution. The Eighth Amendment prohibits the government from incarcerating prisoners without providing adequate medical care. See Oxendine v. Kaplan, 241 F.3d 1272, 1276 (10th Cir.2001). "Prison officials violate the Eighth Amendment when they are deliberately indifferent to the serious medical needs of prisoners in their custody." Perkins, 165 F.3d at 811 (citing Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104-06, 97 S.Ct. 285, 50 L.Ed.2d 251 (1976))...

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