Pennsylvania Record

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Judge throws out suit by prisoner who says he developed injuries from food preserved in citric acid

By Jon Campisi | Jan 17, 2014

U.s. district judge juan r. sanchez

A U.S. District Court judge in Philadelphia has dismissed with prejudice a

federal civil rights complaint brought by a former prison inmate who alleged he was harmed by having had food served to him that caused him illness.

Judge Juan R. Sanchez, sitting in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, granted a motion to dismiss filed by Aramark Correctional Services and others who were being sued by Carl DeJesus, an inmate at the Chester County Prison from May 1 to Oct. 30 of last year who claimed the food he was given behind bars caused sores in his mouth, throat and digestive system because the food was preserved with citric acid.

In addition to Aramark, the other defendants listed in the litigation were Chester County Prison Supervisor Robert Francis, Correctional Officer David Reed and an Aramark employee identified only by his last name, Kramer.

The defendants had filed two separate motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim.

In his complaint, DeJesus asserted that he was denied treatment for his allergic reactions to the citric acid and that he went on to spend more than 18 days not eating.

The inmate said he sought a medical diagnosis and change in meals, and in early July of last year defendant Francis told the plaintiff he would “put a stop to the kitchen staff sending food with the preservative, citric acid,” court papers state.

DeJesus went on to claim in his lawsuit that an employee of Prime Care Medical, the company that provides healthcare services to prisoners, told him that the sores were actually caused by AIDS.

The prisoner ended up taking two blood tests for the disease, but the results were not included in DeJesus’s court pleadings, the record shows.

The plaintiff says in response to his medical requests and complaints, he was given salt rinses, blood and urine tests, and the over-the-counter medication Zantac.

Late last year, DeJesus supplemented his original complaint to assert claims that the black mold growing in the prison showers and the air quality at the prison places inmates at risk of cancer.

In his judicial memorandum, which was filed on Jan. 14, Sanchez determined that the plaintiff’s claim that Aramark violated his Eighth Amendment rights by continuing to serve him meals containing citric acid, even after he complained about his apparent allergy, could not move forward.

“This claim will be dismissed with prejudice for failure to allege any basis to infer Aramark could be liable for a deprivation of DeJesus’s constitutional rights,” the judge wrote.

Citing case law, Sanchez wrote that a private corporation like Aramark can only be held liable for Eighth Amendment violations under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act only if, while acting under color of state law, the company deliberately chose not to take reasonable steps to address a substantial risk of serious harm to an inmate.

Even assuming Aramark, as the prison’s food service provider, was acting under color of state law, and the plaintiff’s injuries were serious enough to qualify under the second prong of the Eighth Amendment test, DeJesus has failed to adequately plead that his injuries were caused “by any deliberate action taken by Aramark,” the memorandum states.

“DeJesus does not allege that he was diagnosed with a citric acid allergy or, if he was diagnosed with a food allergy, that the prison medical provider, Prime Care Medical, made Aramark aware of it,” the judge wrote. “In fact, DeJesus admits that one Prime Care worker advised him that his sores were not caused by the prison food but were instead caused by AIDS.”

Sanchez wrote that he had no choice but to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims with prejudice since DeJesus “fails to state facts demonstrating the existence of a policy or custom on the part of Aramark that was the moving force behind the alleged constitutional violation.”

The judge further determined that Aramark is not liable for the acts of Kramer, the employee, since the complaint does not indicate how or if Kramer acted pursuant to a formal policy or standard operating procedure of the corporation, or whether he had the authority to speak for the company.

The plaintiff also didn’t claim that Aramark ratified Kramer’s conduct after it occurred, the judge noted.

“In effect, DeJesus merely asserts Aramark should be liable because Kramer is its employee, which is an impermissible respondeat superior theory of liability under [Section 1983],” Sanchez wrote.

Sanchez also dismissed the plaintiff’s claims against Kramer in the employee’s personal capacity, writing that DeJesus failed to establish that Kramer acted with the sort of deliberate indifference needed to establish a constitutional violation under the Eighth Amendment.

Similarly, Sanchez dismissed claims against Francis, the prison supervisor, and Weed, the correctional officer, because DeJesus failed to establish that they acted with deliberate indifference.

As for allegations surrounding the allegedly moldy prison showers, Sanchez wrote that the claim has to be dismissed because DeJesus failed to assert any particularized injury or grounds for relief in his claims.

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