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McDonald v. Thomas

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division

March 3, 2015

FREDERICK McDONALD, Plaintiff,
v.
TOBY THOMAS, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

T. MICHAEL PUTNAM, Magistrate Judge.

This cause is before the court on the motion for summary judgment filed on June 30, 2014, by the defendant, Toby Thomas. (Doc. 57). Defendant seeks dismissal of all of plaintiff's claims based on qualified immunity and state-agent immunity. This matter has been fully briefed.[1] The court has considered the pleadings, evidence, and the arguments set forth by both parties. The parties have consented to the exercise of jurisdiction by the undersigned pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).

SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), summary judgment is proper "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The party asking for summary judgment "always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, ' which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (quoting former Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). The movant can meet this burden by presenting evidence showing there is no dispute of material fact, or by showing that the nonmoving party has failed to present evidence in support of some element of its case on which it bears the ultimate burden of proof. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23. There is no requirement, however, "that the moving party support its motion with affidavits or other similar materials negating the opponent's claim." Id. at 323.

Once the moving party has met his burden, Rule 56 "requires the nonmoving party to go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions of file, ' designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Id. at 324 (quoting former Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). The nonmoving party need not present evidence in a form necessary for admission at trial; however, he may not merely rest on his pleadings. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. "[T]he plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Id. at 322.

After the plaintiff has properly responded to a proper motion for summary judgment, the court must grant the motion if there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The substantive law will identify which facts are material and which are irrelevant. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute is genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. at 248. "[T]he judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. at 249. His guide is the same standard necessary to direct a verdict: "whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law." Id. at 251-52; see also Bill Johnson's Restaurants, Inc. v. N.L.R.B., 461 U.S. 731, 745 n.11 (1983). However, the nonmoving party "must do more than show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249 (citations omitted); accord Spence v. Zimmerman, 873 F.2d 256 (11th Cir. 1989). Furthermore, the court must "view the evidence presented through the prism of the substantive evidentiary burden, " so there must be sufficient evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 254; Cottle v. Storer Communication, Inc., 849 F.2d 570, 575 (11th Cir. 1988). Nevertheless, credibility determinations, the weighing of evidence, and the drawing of inferences from the facts are the function of the jury, and therefore the evidence of the non-movant is to be believed and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. The non-movant need not be given the benefit of every inference but only of every reasonable inference. Brown v. City of Clewiston, 848 F.2d 1534, 1540 n. 12 (11th Cir. 1988).

FACTS

Plaintiff Frederick McDonald brought this action seeking declaratory relief, compensatory and punitive damages, and attorneys fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Alabama state law, contending that the defendant used excessive force in subduing him after a verbal altercation. Applying above-referenced standards to the evidence in the record, the following facts appear to be undisputed, or, if disputed, are viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving plaintiff.

McDonald's claims arise from an incident that occurred while he was serving a term of imprisonment at the Limestone Correctional Facility in Harvest, Alabama. According to the complaint commencing this action, McDonald was an inmate at the Limestone prison on July 1, 2012. McDonald was being housed in the "G-Dorm, " which was a large bunkhouse with approximately 250 inmates who are involved in a substance abuse program offered by the prison. The main living area was not air-conditioned, and July 1, 2012, was an extremely hot day. Adjoining classrooms and TV rooms were air-conditioned. The G-Dorm was being supervised that day by only one officer, defendant Toby Thomas. (McDonald Depo., Doc. 57-2, p. 7).

McDonald saw that Thomas was in one of the air-conditioned rooms to the side of the dorm, not in the central guard area, and that Thomas could not see the inmates or the dorm. (Doc. 57-2, p. 7). The inmates were in line to receive ice, which was handed out in response to the hot weather. McDonald was near the back of the line and was loud and complaining, while Thomas was sitting in the air-conditioned room. McDonald had been in line earlier without a shirt on, and Thomas had ordered McDonald to go put on a shirt and had called him a "bitch." McDonald left the line to put on his shirt, but returned to the line with the shirt unbuttoned, upsetting Thomas, who cursed at McDonald again. (Ford Affi., doc. 61-3, ¶¶ 3-4; Hicks Affi., doc. 61-2, ¶ 5). As he stood in line McDonald was irritated because Thomas had taken a large portion of the ice into the office and had instructed the senior inmates to hand out only half a scoop to each inmate instead of a full scoop of ice. McDonald was saying "I feel like my life in danger because you're not supervising the dorm." (Doc. 57-2, pp. 8-9).[2] Thomas became upset and concerned that McDonald was creating a disturbance among the inmates, and he told McDonald to pack up his belongings and go the shift commander's office. (Doc. 57-2, pp. 8-9). McDonald testified that Thomas said to him: "If you feel like your life [is] in danger you pack your shit and get the fuck out of this dorm." (Doc. 57-2, pp. 8-9). McDonald didn't move at that time, because he said he didn't feel like his life was in danger, but after Thomas kept looking at him, McDonald said, "You for real?" (Doc. 57-2, pp. 8-9). Thomas answered: "Hell, yeah, I'm for real. Go get your shit and get the fuck out this dorm." (Id.) At that point, McDonald went to his bunk. (Id.)

At his bunk, McDonald bent over to get some of his belongs from under the bottom bunk. (Doc. 57-2, at p. 10). In the meantime, Thomas had retrieved a metal baton from the guard room. A fellow inmate saw McDonald bending down to get his things, and Thomas walked quickly towards McDonald's bunk, cursing at McDonald, with an angry expression on his face. (Jones Affi., doc. 61-1, ¶ 3-4). McDonald saw Thomas approaching him with his baton, and asked: "What is the purpose of the stick?" (Doc. 57-2, p. 10). Thomas cursed at him, and McDonald cursed back at him. (Id.) McDonald returned to packing his belongings, and Thomas rushed up to the bunk and hit McDonald in the back of the head with his baton, using a two-hand, overhead stroke. (Doc. 57-2, pp. 10-11). Inmate witnesses have stated that McDonald was not acting in a physically threatening or physically aggressive manner when Thomas struck him. (Sloan Affi., doc. 61-4, ¶ 6). Thomas raised his baton with both hands and hit McDonald with an overhead strike, which sounded like a loud crack. (Jones Affi., doc. 61-1, ¶ 5). Thomas continued to hit McDonald with his baton four more times, on the shoulder, side, shin and feet. (Doc. 57-2, pp. 10-11).[3] Another inmate described the blow to McDonald's head as one from the baton "held high over [Thomas's] head, and said Thomas "kept hitting [McDonald] after he was knocked down." (Hicks Affi., Doc. 61-2, ¶ 8). Another inmate described the blow to the head similarly, noting that Thomas hit McDonald from behind while McDonald was bent down collecting his belongings. (Ford Affi., Doc. 61-3, ¶¶ 6-7). McDonald did not move toward Thomas, but was "bent over at his bed when Officer Thomas came up to him from behind and hit him." (Ford Affi., doc. 61-3, ¶ 7). Inmate Jack Hershiser's statement, taken in connection with the incident, recounted that "before the guy [McDonald] could straighten up Officer Thomas hit him with the stick 2-3 times." (Doc. 61-5, p. 22). The statement of Shannon Williams stated that Thomas " continued to hit him while he was down until inmates started to yell stop beating him." (Doc. 61-5, p. 23). Thomas said he did not hit McDonald for being slow, but "for spooking me". (Thomas Depo., Doc. 57-3, p. 93).[4]

After hitting McDonald, Thomas called for back-up. (Jones Affi., doc. 61-1, ¶ 8; Ford Affi., doc. 61-3, ¶ 8; Sloan Affi., doc. 61-4, ¶ 7).[5] Inmates Shannon White and Mike Alexander intervened by physically holding back Thomas to make him stop, and other inmates yelled at Thomas to stop. (Doc. 57-2, p. 11, doc. 61-4, ¶ 7). The inmates then helped McDonald off the floor, and several corrections officers arrived in the dorm. (Doc. 57-2 at p. 11). The officers circled Thomas to protect him from other inmates. McDonald was taken to the health care unit where he was treated for a two-inch cut to his head and a two-inch cut to his shin. (Doc. 57-2, p. 11; Incident Report, Doc. 61-5). He also suffered from dizziness, blurred vision, bruising and swelling. He says that his head wound has caused severe, continuing headaches. (Id. at p. 12).

The Alabama Department of Corrections conducted a use-of-force investigation into the incident. The conclusion of the captain investigating the incident was that "this use of force was not necessary." (Doc. 61-5, pp. 28-29).[6] He further concluded that "[r]ather than wait for backup, Officer Thomas followed Inmate McDonald to the bed area where this incident continued to escalate from a verbal altercation to an excessive application of force." Id.[7]

The defendant argues that the claims brought against Thomas, who is being sued in his individual capacity, are due to be dismissed because he is entitled to qualified immunity on the federal claim ...


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