Where a detainee alleged that officials at his prison were negligent by not providing him with accommodations for his mobility problems, such as a ladder to access his assigned top bunk, but security officials have discretion regarding inmates’ bunk assignments, the claim was barred by the discretionary function exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act’s waiver of sovereign immunity.
Maurice J. Sinkfield, a federal detainee proceeding pro se, filed this civil rights action against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act, or FTCA. He alleges that officials at his prison were negligent by not providing him with accommodations for his mobility problems, such as a ladder to access his assigned top bunk, and by not providing emergency care for injuries he received after a fall while attempting to access his top bunk.
Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, an aggrieved party can file a civil action against a person for actions taken under color of state law that violated his constitutional rights. In Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), and later cases, the Supreme Court recognized a similar, but limited, implied cause of action for a litigant to sue federal officials in their individual capacities for actions taken under color of federal law in violation of the litigant’s constitutional rights.
Sinkfield’s complaint does not sue any federal official for violating his constitutional rights. He sues only the United States and expressly relies on the FTCA to do so. Importantly, the Bivens “doctrine does not override bedrock principles of sovereign immunity so as to permit suits against the United States” for alleged constitutional violations allegedly committed by federal officials.
Therefore, I conclude that the United States, retains sovereign immunity against such constitutional claims and is not a proper defendant to a claim under Bivens and the Eighth Amendment. I will thus summarily dismiss any Eighth Amendment claims under Bivens, because the United States is immune from suit on such claims.
The United States construes Sinkfield’s FTCA claim as asserting that Federal Bureau of Prisons, or BOP, official decisions and/or policy were defective for failing to provide him with a ladder to access his top bunk. The prison safety administrator submitted an affidavit that he has “not been asked by any inmate for placement of a ladder in their cell or to be moved into a cell with a ladder,” and that there is no BOP policy governing the use of ladders on bunk beds in BOP facilities. BOP administrators leave decisions about such matters to the independent judgment of officials at each BOP prison facility.
Based on the statement in the affidavit that BOP security officials have discretion regarding decisions about inmates’ bunk accommodations, including ladders, the United States asserts that Sinkfield’s ladder claim is barred under the discretionary function exception to the FTCA waiver of sovereign immunity. Sinkfield does not dispute that bunk ladders create security concerns, nor does Sinkfield show that security officials have no discretion regarding inmates’ bunk assignments. Thus, I agree that to the extent Sinkfield’s complaint may allege official negligence for failing to provide him a bunk ladder, the motion to dismiss must be granted under Rule 12(b)(1) and the discretionary function exception.
Liberally construed, however, Sinkfield’s complaint also alleges official negligence by the medical staff at USP Lee. Specifically, he asserts that after he reported his mobility issues during his medical intake exam, the medical staff left him housed in unsafe conditions by failing to order a medical accommodation for him, such as a bottom bunk pass. Sinkfield also claims that failure to provide him with emergency medical care after his fall on Oct. 21, 2020, is actionable under the FTCA — as medical negligence or malpractice.
The United States did not construe Sinkfield’s complaint as raising these medical malpractice claims under the FTCA and filed no response to them. Given the nature of Sinkfield’s contentions in the attached portion of his tort claim form, the United States’ construction of his FTCA claim was not unwarranted. Accordingly, the medical malpractice claims as described will go forward, and I will allow the United States to file a dispositive motion on these claims.
Defendant’s motion to dismiss granted in part, denied in part.
Sinkfield v. United States of America, Case No. 7:22-cv-00033, March 3, 2023. WDVA at Roanoke (Jones). VLW 023-3-105. 12 pp.