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Lewis v. Johnson

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

January 3, 2019




         In this case, pro se Plaintiff Christopher Lamont Lewis claims that Defendant Clarence Thomas Johnson violated his constitutional rights. Plaintiff asserts 28 U.S.C. § 1983 claims against Defendant for excessive force and denial of medical care.

         The magistrate judge filed a report on May 25, 2018, recommending that the court deny Defendant’s motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 28). Defendant filed objections to the report and recommendation on June 8, 2018. (Doc. 29). The case currently is before the court for a review of Defendant’s objections to the report and recommendation.

         I. Excessive Force

         In his report and recommendation, with respect to Plaintiff’s excessive force claim, the magistrate judge found that a reasonable jury could conclude that Defendant’s actions were objectively unreasonable. (Doc. 28 at 10-11).

         Defendant objects to this finding and argues that the facts establish that he did not violate Plaintiff’s right to be free from excessive force, and that even if he did, Defendant still enjoys qualified immunity because he did not violate a clearly established right. (Doc. 29).

         “Qualified immunity shields government officials acting within their discretionary authority from liability unless the officials ‘violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.’” Franklin v. Curry, 738 F.3d 1246, 1249 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). “An official who asserts entitlement to qualified immunity must first establish that she or he was acting within the scope of his discretionary authority.” Alcocer v. Mills, 906 F.3d 944, 951 (11th Cir. 2018). “Once the official makes that showing, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to demonstrate that qualified immunity is inappropriate.” Id.

         Here, there is no dispute that Defendant was carrying out duties associated with his employment as a Correctional Officer at the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office. Therefore, to overcome Defendant’s qualified immunity defense, Plaintiff must “establish both that the officer’s conduct violated a constitutionally protected right and that the right was clearly established at the time of the misconduct.” Alcocer, 906 F.3d at 951. The court may consider in any order whether Plaintiff has satisfied his burden. Id.; see Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009) (“The judges of the district courts and the courts of appeals should be permitted to exercise their sound discretion in deciding which of the two prongs of the qualified immunity analysis should be addressed first in light of the circumstances in the particular case at hand.”).

         Assuming without deciding that the magistrate judge properly concluded that questions of fact exist regarding whether Defendant violated Plaintiff’s constitutional right to be free from excessive force, the court concludes that Defendant is entitled to qualified immunity because the right was not clearly established such that “it would [have been] clear to a reasonably officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situated he confronted.” Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 202 (2001).

         Plaintiff’s excessive force claim arises out of an incident the Etowah County Jail on January 26, 2016. Defendant brought Plaintiff’s food tray to his cell, opened the cell door flap, and left the food tray on the flap. (Doc. 16-2 at ¶¶ 15-16). According to jail policy, correctional officers are not to leave any inmate cell door flaps open. (Doc. 16-2 at ¶ 17). Therefore, Defendant instructed Plaintiff to remove the tray from the door flap so that Defendant could shut and secure the flap. (Doc. 16-2 at ¶ 18). Plaintiff advised Defendant that he would not remove the tray until Defendant radioed a Sergeant to bring Plaintiff his asthma inhaler that Plaintiff had requested from Defendant earlier in the day. (Id.; Doc. 27 at 4, ¶ 20).

         When Plaintiff continued to refuse to remove the lunch tray from the flap, Defendant grabbed the tray, placed it on the floor outside the cell, and returned to secure the cell door flap. (Doc. 16-2 at ¶¶ 21-24). Defendant could not close the cell door flap because Plaintiff had extended his arms out on the flap and refused to move them until Defendant radioed the Sergeant regarding the inhaler. (Doc. 16-2 at ¶ 24).

         Plaintiff continued to ignore Defendant’s orders, so Defendant told Plaintiff that he was “going to attempt to force [the hatch] closed by kicking it.” (Doc. 16-4 at 2). Plaintiff responded, “go ahead and try.” (Doc. 16-2 at ¶ 27; Doc. 16-4 at 2). Defendant “took the toe of [his] left foot and tried to force the hatch closed from the underside position of the flap,” but he could not close the flap due to the pressure of Plaintiff’s arms. (Doc. 16-2 at ¶ 6). According to Plaintiff, Defendant “kicked and stomped” his hands and fingers and “viciously kicked the bottom of the . . . tray flap with the plaintiff’s hands still attached, repeatedly attempting to force the hatch close[d], causing serious skin lacerations and swelling of the hands and wrists.” (Doc. 11 at 3-4). Plaintiff claims that Defendant was “using all his might in attempt to either break [his] arms and wrists or make him hurt bad enough to remove his extremities” from the tray flap. (Doc. 27 at 4). When Defendant could not get the flap to close, he told Plaintiff that he would leave the cell flap open temporarily because no other inmate was to be out of his cell at the time. (Doc. 16-2 at ¶ 28). The record does not indicate whether or how Defendant was able to ultimately close Plaintiff’s cell flap door.

         These facts, construed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, do not demonstrate a violation of a clearly established constitutional right sufficient to overcome summary judgment. A right is clearly established when its contours are “sufficiently definite that any reasonable official in the defendant’s shoes would have understood that he was violating it.” Singletary v. Vargas, 804 F.3d 1174, 1184 (11th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “A right may be clearly established for qualified immunity purposes in one of three ways: (1) case law with indistinguishable facts clearly establishing the constitutional right . . . ; (2) a broad statement of principle within the Constitution, statute, or case law that clearly establishes a constitutional right . . . ; or (3) conduct so egregious that a constitutional right was clearly violated, even in the total absence of case law.” Lewis v. City of West Palm Beach, Fla., 561 F.3d 1288, 1291-92 (11th Cir. 2009). For purposes of the first and second methods, “[i]n this circuit, the law can be ‘clearly established’ for qualified immunity purposes only by decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, or the highest court of the state where the case arose.” Jenkins by Hall v. Talladega City Bd. of Educ., 115 F.3d 821, 826 n.4 (11th Cir. 1997).

         Plaintiff has not cited, and the court has not located, case law with indistinguishable facts clearly establishing a constitutional right, and the court finds that Defendant’s actions are not so egregious that a constitutional right was clearly violated in the absence of analogous case law. ...

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