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Vann v. Estes

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

December 6, 2017

GERALD VANN, Plaintiff,
v.
DEWAYNE ESTES, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          R. DAVID PROCTOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This case is before the court on (1) Defendant DeWayne Estes's Second Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. # 37), and (2) Defendants Samuel Snelson and Cordaro Melton's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. # 39). The motions have been fully briefed and are under submission. (Docs. # 38, 40, 43-45, 48). After careful review, and for the reasons explained below, Defendant Estes is due to be granted summary judgment, and Defendants Snelson and Melton are due to be granted summary judgment in part and denied summary judgment in part.

         I. Factual Summary[1]

         In April 2015, Plaintiff was a convicted prisoner housed in high medium security custody at St. Clair Correctional Facility (“St. Clair”).[2] (Doc. # 44-2 at 17-18). He was housed in the P- 2 dorm at St. Clair. (Id. at 42-43). At approximately 5:43 a.m. on April 17, 2015, Lieutenant Ronald Carter of the Alabama Department of Corrections was assaulted and stabbed at St. Clair. (Doc. # 39-2 at 20). (See also Doc. # 44-2 at 21-22 (identifying the injured lieutenant as “Lieutenant Carter”); 15-2 at 14 (stating that the assault on Lieutenant Ronald Carter occurred at 5:43 a.m. on April 17, 2015)). Lieutenant Carter was transported to UAB Hospital. (Doc. # 39-2 at 20). Plaintiff has recalled “an unusual hush” in the dining area on the morning of April 17th when he observed Lieutenant Carter walk out of a kitchen. (Doc. # 44-2 at 44-45). Plaintiff left the dining area and returned to his dorm block before the lieutenant's assault occurred. (Id. at 45-46).

         St. Clair's warden, Defendant Estes, requested that a Correctional Emergency Response Team (“CERT”) be dispatched to St. Clair following the stabbing. (Doc. # 15-4 at 4) (page 15 of Estes's deposition). The CERT teams handle disturbances in Alabama state prisons and search inmates' property for contraband on an as-needed basis. (Doc. # 39-2 at 12-13). Defendants Snelson and Melton were members of the CERT team that entered St. Clair on April 17, 2015. (Id. at 18-19; Doc. # 39-3 at 9-10). Officials at St. Clair told the CERT team that a lieutenant had been stabbed, and the CERT team entered St. Clair to “lock the cell blocks down” so that the inmates' property could be searched. (Doc. # 39-2 at 20-21). (See also Doc. # 15-4 at 9) (page 30 of Estes's deposition). Defendant Estes suspected that an individual assigned to cell block P or Q stabbed the lieutenant because those blocks were eating breakfast when the stabbing occurred. (Doc. # 15-4 at 9) (page 30 of Estes's deposition).

         Plaintiff recalls hearing a commotion between inmates in the P-2 dorm and corrections officers, including a warden, before the CERT team entered the P-2 dorm. (Doc. # 44-2 at 62-63). According to Plaintiff's deposition testimony, “Warden Evans” was the warden involved in the verbal dispute. (Id. at 63). And, prison records indicate that “Warden Eric Evans” worked at St. Clair.[3] (Doc. # 15-2 at 12) (mentioning Evans in an incident report about the use of force drafted in April 2015). After hearing the commotion, Plaintiff walked out of his cell and escorted another inmate, OC, out of the dorm. (Doc. # 44-2 at 65-67). When he returned to P-2 dorm, other inmates were nervous because Evans had indicated that a riot team would be sent into the dorm. (Id. at 67-68). Plaintiff told them that the riot team would not bother anyone if they locked down as ordered. (Id. at 68). Plaintiff heard the CERT officers travelling down other hallways, but he was downstairs making a cup of coffee when the CERT officers entered P-2 dorm. (Id. at 68-69).

         The CERT team entered the P-2 dorm from the upper floor at approximately 10:10 a.m. (Docs. # 15-2 at 12; 39-2 at 23). According to Plaintiff, the CERT team blocked him from travelling from the downstairs area to his upstairs cell because they walked down the stairs two abreast. (Doc. # 44-2 at 69). Plaintiff attempted to appear non-threatening, placed his hands behind his head, and walked towards the staircase so that he could enter his cell.[4] (Id. at 69). An unidentified corrections officer grabbed his head and squeezed his eye. (Id.). Plaintiff reacted by punching the officer. (Id. at 69-70). The corrections officer -- later identified as Defendant Melton -- tackled Plaintiff, placed him in a headlock, and tilted his head upwards. (Id. at 70, 73). Then, Defendant Snelson arrived with a stick (described by the parties as a baton). (Id. at 71). Plaintiff wrestled with Melton to loosen his arms so that he could protect his head. (Id.). Snelson hit Plaintiff in the head two or three times with the baton. (Id. at 71-72). Plaintiff blocked one blow with his right hand and one blow with his left hand. (Id. at 72-73). After Plaintiff's head had split open, Defendant Melton released Plaintiff from the lock, grabbed him by the throat, and punched him in the chin. (Id. at 71). Plaintiff lost consciousness thereafter, but recalled that other officers hit him in the legs and body with batons before he lost consciousness.[5] (Id. at 71, 73).

         As Plaintiff lost consciousness, a melee broke out between the inmates in the P-2 dorm and the CERT officers. (See Doc. # 39-2 at 28). The inmates attacked the officers with broomsticks and locks tied to belts and socks. (Id.). One inmate struck Defendant Melton's head with a broomstick. (Doc. # 39-3 at 14). After using force against several rioting inmates, the CERT officers handcuffed them and transferred them to St. Clair employees for treatment at the infirmary. (Doc. # 15-2 at 12).

         Plaintiff has testified that, after being handcuffed, he stumbled out of the cell block and was lined up against a wall. (Doc. # 44-2 at 92). An unidentified St. Clair employee “[slung] him head first into the wall in [his] handcuffs.” (Id.). Another St. Clair officer picked Plaintiff up and assisted him to the prison's infirmary. (Id. at 93). After an examination in the infirmary, paramedics transported Plaintiff and two other prisoners to UAB Hospital. (Doc. # 15-2 at 12). Plaintiff left the infirmary at approximately 11:10 a.m. and exited St. Clair in an ambulance at approximately 11:20 a.m. (Id.). UAB Hospital admitted Vann that evening for further care. (Id.).

         Plaintiff received a large gash on the back of his head that required 39 staples to close. (Id. at 72, 114). He suffered from sore ribs due to a kick or a hit in his ribs. (Id. at 115). Employees at UAB Hospital told him that he had bruised lungs and ribs following the incident. (Id.). His right elbow and right hand swelled up, and he had scars on his right elbow and right hand. (Id. at 116-18). He suffered no broken bones. (Id. at 118). Prison medical records state that Plaintiff had hematomas on his face and head, along with a small laceration on his knee and injuries on his right hand.[6] (Doc. # 44-3 at 46). Plaintiff was transported to UAB Hospital and admitted for one or two days. (Doc. # 44-2 at 116).

         II. Standard of Review

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, summary judgment is proper “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The party asking for summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the pleadings or filings which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323. Once the moving party has met its burden, Rule 56 requires the non-moving party to go beyond the pleadings and -- by pointing to affidavits, or depositions, answers to interrogatories, and/or admissions on file -- designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 324.

         The substantive law will identify which facts are material and which are irrelevant. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986) (“Anderson”). All reasonable doubts about the facts and all justifiable inferences are resolved in favor of the non-movant. See Allen v. Bd. of Pub. Educ. for Bibb Cty., 495 F.3d 1306, 1314 (11th Cir. 2007); Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1115 (11th Cir. 1993). A dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted. See Id. at 249.

         When faced with a “properly supported motion for summary judgment, [the non-moving party] must come forward with specific factual evidence, presenting more than mere allegations.” Gargiulo v. G.M. Sales, Inc., 131 F.3d 995, 999 (11th Cir. 1997). As Anderson teaches, under Rule 56(c) a plaintiff may not simply rest on her allegations made in the complaint; instead, as the party bearing the burden of proof at trial, she must come forward with at least some evidence to support each element essential to her case at trial. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. “[A] party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment ‘may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleading, but . . . must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Id. at 248 (citations omitted).

         Summary judgment is mandated “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.” Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322. “Summary judgment may be granted if the non-moving party's evidence is merely colorable or is not significantly probative.” Sawyer v. Sw. Airlines Co., 243 F.Supp.2d 1257, 1262 (D. Kan. 2003) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250-51).

         “[A]t the summary judgment stage the 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.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. “Essentially, the inquiry is ‘whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to the jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Sawyer, 243 F.Supp.2d at 1262 (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251-52); see also LaRoche v. Denny's, Inc., 62 F.Supp.2d 1366, 1371 (S.D. Fla. 1999) (“The law is clear . . . that suspicion, perception, opinion, and belief cannot be used to defeat a motion for summary judgment.”).

         III. Analysis

         After careful review, the court concludes that Plaintiff's excessive force claim against Defendants Snelson and Melton presents a genuine issue of whether they maliciously used deadly force against him in violation of the Eighth Amendment. In all other respects, however, Defendants are entitled to summary judgment.

         A. Plaintiff Has Presented a Triable § 1983 Excessive Force Claim Against Defendants Snelson and Melton

         Plaintiff's has asserted a § 1983 claim against Snelson and Melton for the beating he alleges to have occurred. (Doc. # 25 at ¶¶ 25-30). Claims of excessive force against prison officials fall under the Eighth Amendment's proscription against cruel and unusual punishment. To establish an Eighth Amendment excessive force claim against a prison official, a plaintiff prisoner must show that the official's actions amounted to an “unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain.” Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 319 (1986). “[F]orce is deemed legitimate in a custodial setting as long as it is applied ‘in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline [and not] maliciously and sadistically to cause harm.'” Skrtich v. Thornton, 280 F.3d 1295, 1300 (11th Cir. 2002) (quoting Whitley, 475 U.S. at 320-21). In determining whether an application of force was applied maliciously and sadistically to cause harm, the court considers five factors: “(1) the extent of injury; (2) the need for application of force; (3) the relationship between that need and the amount of force used; (4) any efforts made to temper the severity of a forceful response; and (5) the extent of the threat to the safety of staff and inmates, as reasonably perceived by the responsible officials on the basis of facts known to them.” Campbell v. Sikes, 169 F.3d 1353, 1375 (11th Cir. 1999) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Whitley, 475 U.S. at 321). The court also may consider an officer's compliance with established prison policies as evidence of the official's good faith. Id. at 1376. Upon consideration of such factors, “inferences may be drawn as to whether the use of force could plausibly have been thought necessary, or instead evinced such wantonness with respect to the unjustified infliction of harm as is tantamount to a knowing willingness that it ...


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