Staub v. Nietzel, Civil Action 3:15-cv-689-DJH-RSE

CourtUnited States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court of Western District of Kentucky
Writing for the CourtDavid J. Hale, Judge United States District Court
Decision Date11 March 2022
PartiesSTEVEN STAUB, Plaintiff, v. TRACY NIETZEL et al., Defendants.
Docket NumberCivil Action 3:15-cv-689-DJH-RSE

STEVEN STAUB, Plaintiff,

TRACY NIETZEL et al., Defendants.

Civil Action No. 3:15-cv-689-DJH-RSE

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Louisville Division

March 11, 2022


David J. Hale, Judge United States District Court

Plaintiff Steven Staub, a former Kentucky Department of Corrections (KDOC) inmate, brought this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against several state prison officials, claiming that the defendants violated his right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment when they punished him for possessing dangerous contraband following a prison disciplinary hearing that the Kentucky Court of Appeals later found to be constitutionally inadequate. (See Docket No. 1) Staub also asserted negligence-per-se claims against the defendants and alleged that they engaged in a civil conspiracy, committed gross negligence, and negligently failed to adequately train prison officials with regard to inmates' due process rights. (Id.) Seven of the defendants now move for summary judgment on all of Staub's claims against them (D.N. 76), and Staub cross-moves for partial summary judgment on the issue of whether the prior decision by the Kentucky Court of Appeals precludes relitigation of the defendants' liability as to Staub's due process claims (D.N. 77). For the reasons explained below, the Court will deny Staub's motion and grant the defendants' motion.



The following facts come from the parties' respective summary-judgment motions and their “cit[ations] to particular parts of materials in the record.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A).[1]


On December 19, 2012, prison officials at Kentucky's Northpoint Training Center (NTC), where Staub was serving a state prison sentence, searched Staub's living quarters and found what appeared to be eleven Suboxone strips wrapped in cellophane.[2] (D.N. 76-1, PageID # 386-87; D.N. 76-2, PageID # 417; D.N. 77-1, PageID # 499) Marcus Faulkner, a Training Instructor at NTC, completed a disciplinary report the next day describing the search. (D.N. 76-1, PageID # 389; D.N. 77-1, PageID # 499-500) Faulkner wrote in his report that he “found a total of 11 Suboxone strips in [inmate] Staub's locker” and noted that after the search, “a chain of custody was completed”; “[p]ictures were taken of the [S]uboxone strips”; and the “strips were turned over to” Captain Jonathan Beasley “to be placed in the evidence locker.” (D.N. 76-5, PageID # 430) After receiving the seized strips from Faulkner, Beasley attests, he completed a separate


Extraordinary Occurrence Report, which included a photocopy of a chain-of-custody form. (D.N. 76-1, PageID # 387-88; D.N. 76-6, PageID # 435-36; see D.N. 76-8) That photocopied version of the form showed three separate entries on December 19, 2012: one documenting Faulkner's seizure of the suspected Suboxone strips from Staub's locker; one marking the transfer of those strips from Faulkner to Beasley; and one confirming Beasley's placement of the strips in the evidence locker. (D.N. 76-1, PageID # 387; D.N. 76-8, PageID # 443) The chain-of-custody form attached to Beasley's report did not include an “Evidence Log” number, however, and it indicated that the Suboxone strips had been obtained from “Bed 48, ” which apparently did not belong to Staub. (D.N. 76-2, PageID # 420; D.N. 76-8, PageID # 443; D.N. 77-1, PageID # 500)

Following the search of his living quarters, Staub was charged as part of a prison disciplinary proceeding with “[p]ossession or promoting of dangerous contraband, ” to which he pleaded not guilty. (D.N. 76-1, PageID # 389; D.N. 77-1, PageID # 500; see D.N. 76-5, PageID # 430-31) A disciplinary hearing was held at NTC on January 10, 2013. (D.N. 76-1, PageID # 389; D.N. 77-1, PageID # 500) The defendants concede that the chain-of-custody form that was reviewed during that hearing was the version that Beasley had attached to his December 19, 2012 Extraordinary Occurrence Report, which showed Beasley as the last person to handle the seized Suboxone strips. (D.N. 76-1, PageID # 413; D.N. 76-8, PageID # 443; see D.N. 76-1, PageID # 387, 402-03; D.N. 76-3, PageID # 424-26; D.N. 76-6, PageID # 435; D.N. 76-17, PageID # 485) Accordingly, Staub argued at the hearing that “there [wa]s nothing showing” that the strips seized in his living quarters had been “tested by a lab, ” and he also pointed out that “there [wa]s no evidence tag number” assigned to the strips. (D.N. 76-5, PageID # 432; see D.N. 76-1, PageID # 389; D.N. 77-1, PageID # 500) The presiding adjustment officer nonetheless found Staub guilty “based on the fact that . . . Faulkner found a total of 11 [S]uboxone strips in [inmate] Staub's


locker” and penalized Staub with a ninety-day placement in disciplinary segregation and the forfeiture of 180 days of good-time credit. (D.N. 76-5, PageID # 432-33; see D.N. 76-1, PageID # 389; D.N. 77-1, PageID # 500-01)

Staub appealed the adjustment officer's decision to NTC's warden, who ultimately ordered that Staub's case be reheard. (D.N. 76-1, PageID # 389; D.N. 77-1, PageID # 501) A second disciplinary hearing was thus scheduled to take place at the Kentucky State Reformatory (KSR), where Staub had since been transferred. (D.N. 76-1, PageID # 390; D.N. 77-1, PageID # 501) Faulkner prepared a new disciplinary report on February 15, 2013, which again described his seizure roughly two months earlier of what appeared to be eleven Suboxone strips in Staub's living quarters at NTC.[3] (D.N. 76-1, PageID # 390; D.N. 76-2, PageID # 418-19; D.N. 77-1, PageID # 501; see D.N. 76-13) Lieutenant Michael D. Wilson at KSR was tasked with investigating this new report. (D.N. 76-1, PageID # 390; D.N. 77-1, PageID # 501-02; see D.N. 76-13, PageID # 465-66) And Lieutenant Dawn Deckard, also at KSR, was assigned to serve as the presiding adjustment officer at Staub's second disciplinary hearing. (D.N. 76-1, PageID # 390-91; D.N. 77-1, PageID # 501; see D.N. 76-13, PageID # 467-68)

On February 28, 2013, Deckard received an email from Tracy Nietzel, a Lieutenant at NTC, that included “the requested information needed for the rehearing” of Staub's case. (D.N. 76-15, PageID # 473; see D.N. 76-1, PageID # 391; D.N. 77-1, PageID # 501) Attached to that email was a completed “MMC Buprenorphine HCL Test” worksheet dated December 19, 2012, which indicated that “33 strips” had tested positive for “Buprenorphine HCL, ” an opioid and one of


Suboxone's main ingredients. (See D.N. 76-15, PageID # 474) The worksheet listed Staub as the “Subject, ” Nietzel as the “Examiner, ” and “550” as the “Evid #, ” and it was signed by Nietzel and a witness.[4] (Id.; see D.N. 76-3, PageID # 423) Two photographs of a testing vial were also attached to Nietzel's email. (See D.N. 76-15, PageID # 475-76) And in the email's body, Nietzel stated that she had “also identified the . . . strips to be [b]uprenorphrine [sic], Suboxone through pill identifier just as [she] would when a tablet, capsule, etc. is found.” (Id., PageID # 473) In short, the email and accompanying worksheet and photographs appeared to indicate that the strips seized in Staub's living quarters on December 19, 2012, had tested positive for buprenorphine and been separately identified as Suboxone strips during field tests that Nietzel conducted that same day. (See D.N. 76-1, PageID # 388, 391; D.N. 76-3, PageID # 423; D.N. 77-1, PageID # 501) As for the discrepancy between the number of strips tested by Nietzel (thirty-three) and the number found in Staub's living quarters (eleven), Nietzel apparently discovered during her field tests that each of the “strips” seized from Staub was in a fact a cellophane-wrapped packet of three strips. (D.N. 76-1, PageID # 388; D.N. 76-3, PageID # 423; see D.N. 1-1, PageID # 32)

On March 1, 2013, Wilson, the officer at KSR investigating Staub's disciplinary report, emailed Nietzel to ask her if “there [wa]s a more up to date Chain of Custody [form]” for the Suboxone strips that had been seized from Staub's living quarters and, as suggested by Nietzel's email to Deckard the day before, later tested by Nietzel for buprenorphine. (D.N. 76-16, PageID # 478; see D.N. 76-1, PageID # 391; D.N. 77-1, PageID # 501-02) Nietzel emailed Wilson a copy


of the requested chain-of-custody form ten days later. (D.N. 76-16, PageID # 477, 479; see D.N. 76-1, PageID # 391; D.N. 77-1, PageID # 502)

The parties' primary dispute in this matter concerns the authenticity of this chain-of-custody form. Staub contends that the chain-of-custody form that Nietzel sent to Wilson on March 11, 2013, was “different from” the chain-of-custody form that “had been reviewed” during his first disciplinary hearing at NTC in January 2013. (D.N. 77-1, PageID # 502) The earlier version of the form did not have an “Evidence Log” number, and it only listed three entries, the last of which indicated that Beasley placed the seized Suboxone strips in NTC's evidence locker on December 19, 2012; nowhere did that form suggest that Nietzel ever took possession of the strips at a later time or that the strips were ever tested for buprenorphine. (D.N. 76-8, PageID # 443; see D.N. 1-1, PageID # 7-8; D.N. 77-1, PageID # 502) Yet Staub points out that the chain-of-custody form that Nietzel emailed to Wilson “included a new [fourth] entry” on December 19, 2012, that ostensibly indicated that Nietzel had retrieved the strips from NTC's evidence locker on that date and moved them to the Internal Affairs office “for testing.” (D.N. 77-1, PageID # 502; see D.N. 76-16, PageID # 479) Nietzel's form also included an “Evidence Log” number that matched the number on the field-test results that Nietzel emailed to Deckard on February 28, 2013. (Id.; D.N. 77-1, PageID # 502; see D.N. 76-15, PageID # 474) According to Staub, these differences between Nietzel's chain-of-custody form and the version reviewed during his first disciplinary hearing betray Nietzel's efforts to...

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