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Cavanaugh v. Hall County Department of Corrections

United States District Court, D. Nebraska

October 19, 2015




Plaintiff Stephen Cavanaugh brings this case against Hall County, Nebraska (“Hall County”), [1] under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of his constitutional rights. The operative pleadings are Cavanaugh’s Complaint (Filing No. 1) and Amended Complaint (Filing No. 12). Cavanaugh argues in his pleadings that officials of the Hall County Jail in Grand Island, Nebraska, repeatedly punished him for filing grievances by placing him in segregation. In addition, he argues he was denied access to the jail’s grievance system.

Cavanaugh and Hall County have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. (Filing Nos. 55 and 58.) The court has considered the pleadings, briefs, and the parties’ evidence. For the reasons discussed below, the court finds Hall County is entitled to summary judgment.


Summary judgment is proper if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). The movant bears the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for the motion, and must identify those portions of the record that the movant believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Torgerson v. City of Rochester, 643 F.3d 1031, 1042 (8th Cir. 2011) (en banc). If the movant does so, the non-movant must respond by submitting evidentiary materials that set out specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id.

On a motion for summary judgment, facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party only if there is a genuine dispute as to those facts. Id. Credibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the evidence are jury functions, not those of a judge. Id. In order to show that disputed facts are material, the party opposing summary judgment must cite to the relevant substantive law in identifying facts that might affect the outcome of the suit. Quinn v. St. Louis Cnty., 653 F.3d 745, 751 (8th Cir. 2011). But where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no genuine issue for trial. Torgerson, 643 F.3d at 1042.

With these standards in mind, the court turns to consideration of the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment.


Cavanaugh was a pretrial detainee at the Hall County Jail from July 29, 2012, until he was transferred to the custody of the State of Nebraska in September of 2013. (Filing No. 12 at CM/ECF p. 1.) At all times relevant to this action, Ruiz was the jail director, Vann was the assistant jail director, and Sparr, Castleberry, Conley, and Rea were jail sergeants. (Filing No. 29.)

Analysis of this case requires an understanding of some of the jail’s polices and procedures, and its systems for processing inmate requests and inmate grievances. The jail maintains a Standard Operating Policy and Procedure Manual. The manual explicitly states that any inmate or detainee is permitted to report and file a grievance, and that no disciplinary sanction or adverse action may occur as a result of filing a grievance. (Filing No. 25-3.) The jail also maintains an Inmate/Detainee Handbook. This handbook explicitly states that no negative action or retaliation may be made against an inmate or detainee for filing a grievance. But, if a grievance is frivolous, disrespectful, contains threats, profanity, or vulgarity, it may be returned to the inmate or detainee without a response. (Filing No. 25-2 at CM/ECF pp. 28-29.)

The handbook describes a distinction between “grievances” and “inmate requests.” Specifically, grievances pertain to the violation of a “right” or a “privilege” and are appealable. In contrast, inmate requests are used to pose questions about inmates’ criminal sentences, charges, money, release dates, and access to jail programming and services. They may be directed to jail staff and also other county and local officials. (See generally Filing No. 25-2.) An inmate or detainee may face sanctions for filing an inmate request that is disrespectful, or contains threats, profanity, or vulgarity. (Filing No. 25-2 at CM/ECF p. 11.)

Both grievances and inmate requests may be submitted by general-population inmates and detainees via kiosks located in the common areas of the jail. These kiosks provide electronic transmission of inmate requests and grievances and other items of correspondence to individuals and departments within the jail, and also to certain agencies outside the jail, such as the city police department and the clerk of the court. (Filing No. 25-2 at CM/ECF p. 11; Filing No. 56-1 at CM/ECF p. 2.) These kiosks are operated by inmates and detainees using fingerprint access. (Filing No. 56-1 at CM/ECF p. 2.)

Turning now to the facts of this case, this case concerns incidents that occurred between September 28, 2012, and September of 2013. Jail staff placed Cavanaugh in segregation on seven separate occasions during this period of time.[2] Cavanaugh claims jail officials placed him in segregation as punishment for filing grievances and they were acting in accordance with a policy or custom when they did so. The evidence shows the following with respect to these seven incidents of segregation.

One: Jail officials held Cavanaugh in segregation from October 25, 2012, to October 26, 2012. (Filing No. 56-2 at CM/ECF p. 1.) On October 25, 2012, hearing officers found Cavanaugh guilty of second-degree disrespect based on allegations that he had used the electronic communication system to transmit profane communication to the Grand Island Police Department (e.g., “NOT ...

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