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Thomas v. Cox

United States District Court, D. Nevada

February 7, 2018

Cassandra Thomas, Plaintiff
James G. Cox, et al., Defendants


          Jennifer A. Dorsey, U.S. District Judge

         Plaintiff Cassandra Thomas sues various defendants employed by the Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC), Florence McClure Women's Correctional Center (FMWCC), the Nevada Board of Prison Commissioners, and others, alleging that their Hepatitis C (Hep-C) treatment policy violates the Eighth Amendment. Prison Commissioners Brian Sandoval, Barbara Cegavske, and Adam Laxalt, Director of NDOC James Dzuranda, and the Board (the policy defendants) move to dismiss Count III of Thomas's second-amended complaint for lack of personal participation and failure to state a claim against them. Because it appears that Thomas sues the policy defendants only in their official capacities for injunctive relief, and the motion to dismiss seems to assume that these defendants are sued instead in their personal capacities, I deny the motion without prejudice.


         Thomas alleges that the NDOC is denying her Hep-C treatment based on a policy that only allows treatment if she develops cirrhosis, a irreparable liver condition that can be fatal.[2]She alleges that this policy was promulgated or maintained by the policy defendants and others, who are members of the NDOC Utilization Review Panel and NDOC Hepatitis C Panel, and constitutes deliberate indifference to her serious medical needs in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The policy defendants move to dismiss the claim against them.


          A. Motion-to-dismiss standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 requires every complaint to contain “[a] short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.”[3] While Rule 8 does not require detailed factual allegations, the properly pled claim must contain enough facts to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.”[4] This “demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation”; the facts alleged must raise the claim “above the speculative level.”[5] In other words, a complaint must make direct or inferential allegations about “all the material elements necessary to sustain recovery under some viable legal theory.”[6]

         District courts employ a two-step approach when evaluating a complaint's sufficiency on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. First, I must accept as true all well-pled factual allegations in the complaint, recognizing that legal conclusions are not entitled to the assumption of truth.[7]Mere recitals of a claim's elements, supported only by conclusory statements, are insufficient.[8]Second, I must consider whether the well-pled factual allegations state a plausible claim for relief.[9] A claim is facially plausible when the complaint alleges facts that allow the court to draw a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the alleged misconduct.[10] A complaint that does not permit me to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct has “alleged-but not shown-that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” and it must be dismissed.[11]

         B. The policy defendants' arguments only apply to individual-capacity defendants

          The policy defendants argue that Thomas's claims against them are barred because she fails to allege their personal participation in the alleged constitutional violations. They contend that Thomas fails to state a deliberate-indifference claim because she does not allege that the policy defendants knew of her medical needs. They also raise a qualified-immunity defense.[12]

         Thomas responds that she has done enough to allege supervisory liability against the policy defendants, which may not require personal involvement in the constitutional violation.[13]She also argues that the defendants' actions violate clearly established law and they are therefore not entitled to qualified immunity.[14]

         It appears that both sides are confusing personal-capacity liability for damages with official-capacity liability for equitable relief. Official-capacity suits “represent only another way of pleading an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent”[15] and “therefore should be treated as suits against the State.”[16] “A plaintiff seeking injunctive relief against the State is not required to allege a named official's personal involvement in the acts or omissions constituting the alleged constitutional violation.”[17] “Rather, a plaintiff need only identify the law or policy challenged as a constitutional violation and name the official within the entity who can appropriately respond to injunctive relief.”[18] Further, qualified immunity “is only a defense available to government officials sued in their individual capacities. It is not available to those sued only in their official capacities.”[19]

         The second amended complaint names the policy defendants only in their official capacities.[20] For relief, Thomas asks the court to declare the Hep-C policy unconstitutional and for an injunction ordering the defendants to change the policy, and seeks compensatory damages. And she makes it clear in her “general factual allegations” section of her complaint that each of these policy defendants “was acting under color of law in” his or her “official capacity, ” taking care to differentiate these defendants from others whom she alleges were acting in their “individual capacity.”[21] Because Thomas's requests for monetary damages cannot be brought against the policy defendants in their official capacities, [22] I assume that the only relief Thomas seeks from these defendants is declaratory and injunctive relief. Because the policy defendants are sued solely in their official capacities for injunctive relief as those with the power to change the allegedly unconstitutional Hep-C policy, their arguments about personal participation and qualified immunity simply have no application.[23]

         Neither do the policy defendants' arguments for failure to state a claim for deliberate indifference. They argue that they did not know of Thomas's medical needs, and that they themselves did not disregard any significant risk to her health and safety.[24] But what matters in an official-capacity claim is whether the state entities that the policy defendants represent-the Nevada Board of Prison Commissioners and the NDOC-exhibited deliberate indifference to serious medical needs by promulgating and maintaining a policy that requires the blanket denial of treatment to inmates ...

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