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Lack of specificity dooms deliberate indifference claim

Where a detainee asserted deliberate indifference claims against prison and medical officials after his small bowel obstruction allegedly caused a permanent injury, but he made only collective allegations against all “Defendants,” without identifying how each individual defendant personally interacted with him or was responsible for the denial of his Eighth Amendment rights, the complaint was dismissed.


According to the complaint, in March 2018, Chad Langford was incarcerated at FCI Estill federal prison in South Carolina. On March 20, he experienced abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. He was transported from FCI Estill to an outside hospital, Hampton Regional Medical Center, or HRMC, for evaluation and testing. The results were deemed “unremarkable,” and Langford was returned to FCI Estill.

From March 20 through March 28, Langford’s health grew progressively worse. Ultimately, on March 28, a substitute physician observed Langford in the medical waiting area, ordered an examination and sent him back to HRMC for emergency surgery. Langford was diagnosed with an abdominal infection due to a small bowel obstruction. He remained at HRMC for several weeks after surgery and alleges permanent injury as a result.

In March 2021, Langford, with the assistance of counsel, filed the present complaint bringing a single count under the Eighth Amendment pursuant to Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971). Defendants are officials at FCI Estill. The district court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim.


“An Eighth Amendment claim for deliberate indifference to serious medical needs includes objective and subjective elements.” “The objective element requires a ‘serious’ medical condition.” This prong is not at issue here; defendants concede that Langford has pled a serious medical condition in the form of his small bowel obstruction and related complications.

Rather, this case turns on the subjective element. The subjective prong requires the prison official to have acted with a “sufficiently culpable state of mind,” specifically, “deliberate indifference” to inmate health. In turn, “deliberate indifference” requires that the prison official have “actual subjective knowledge of both the inmate’s serious medical condition and the excessive risk posed by the official’s action or inaction.”

Defendants argue that Langford’s “generalized, conclusory, and collective allegations” fail to plausibly allege deliberate indifference on the part of each defendant. The court agrees.

The problem with this matter arises from the manner of the pleading. The complaint makes only collective allegations against all “Defendants,” without identifying how each individual defendant personally interacted with Langford or was responsible for the denial of his Eighth Amendment rights. Courts have been critical of complaints that “fail[] to isolate the allegedly unconstitutional acts of each defendant” or that “make[] only categorical references to ‘Defendants.’”

The courts have reasoned that requiring specific factual allegations for each defendant gives fair notice to that defendant of the plaintiff’s claim and the underlying factual support. That reasoning is consistent with Bivens liability, which is “personal, based upon each defendant’s own constitutional violations.” Applied to his Eighth Amendment Bivens claim, then, Langford needed to plead sufficient facts to plausibly allege that each defendant actually knew about his serious medical condition and the risks of failing to treat him.

But even accepting the facts as true and drawing all reasonable inferences in Langford’s favor, he failed to meet this standard. In his complaint, Langford did not identify who the defendants are beyond being employees at FCI Estill, in what capacity each defendant interacted with Langford or how (or even if) each defendant was responsible for Langford’s medical treatment.

It is not reasonable to infer liability against each defendant based on the facts alleged. This is especially the case with the nonmedical defendants (the warden, case manager and unit manager), where Langford’s “global manner of pleading” makes his claim against those defendants “less plausible because some of the individual defendants had no reason to have known or interacted with [Langford] at the time of the alleged violations.” Even with the medical defendants—the two nurses—there are no allegations that either nurse treated or refused to treat Langford, saw him in the FCI Estill medical offices during the relevant time, or was even working on the days in question.


Langford v. Joyner, Case No. 21-7737, March 2, 2023. 4th Cir. (Wynn), from DSC at Orangeburg (Cain). Louis H. Lang for Appellant. Kathleen Michelle Stoughton for Appellees. VLW 023-2-068. 10 pp.

VLW 023-2-068

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