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Reaser v. Borders

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

May 22, 2019

TERRANCE REASER, #265 57 Plaintiff,
v.
MR. BORDERS, [1] et al., Defendants.

          RECOMMENDATION OF THE MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          GRAY M. BORDEN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Terrance Reaser, an inmate in the custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections, files this pro se civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He alleges a claim of excessive force in violation of his Eighth Amendment rights during his incarceration at the Easterling Correctional Facility in Clio, Alabama.[2] The complaint is filed against Sgt. Mitchell Borders, Lieutenant Larry Peavy, and Correctional Officer Munchie Keeton. Reaser requests relief for the violation of his constitutional rights and for pain and suffering. Doc. 1.

         Defendants filed an answer, special report, and supporting evidentiary materials addressing Reaser's claims for relief. Docs. 11 & 12. In these filings, Defendants deny they acted in violation of Reaser's constitutional rights. Docs. 11 & 12. Upon receipt of Defendants' special report, the court issued an order directing Reaser to file a response, including sworn affidavits and other evidentiary materials, and specifically cautioning Reaser “the court may at any time thereafter and without notice to the parties (1) treat the special report and any supporting evidentiary materials as a motion for summary judgment.” Doc. 13. Reaser responded to Defendants' special report, see Doc. 16, but his response does not demonstrate there is any genuine issue of material fact. See Doc. 13 at 2. The court will treat Defendants' report as a motion for summary judgment and resolve this motion in their favor.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         “Summary judgment is appropriate if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show there is no genuine [dispute] as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Greenberg v. BellSouth Telecomm., Inc., 498 F.3d 1258, 1263 (11th Cir. 2007) (per curiam); Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a) (“The court shall grant summary judgment 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.”). The party moving 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 [record, including pleadings, discovery materials and affidavits], which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine [dispute] of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The movant may meet this burden by presenting evidence indicating there is no dispute of material fact or by showing the non-moving party has failed to present evidence to support some element on which it bears the ultimate burden of proof. Id. at 322-24.

         Defendants have met their evidentiary burden and demonstrated the absence of any genuine dispute of material fact. Thus, the burden shifts to Reaser to establish, with appropriate evidence beyond the pleadings, that a genuine dispute material to the case exists. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324; Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)(3) (“If a party fails to properly support an assertion of fact or fails to properly address another party's assertion of fact [by citing to materials in the record including affidavits, relevant documents or other materials], the court may . . . grant summary judgment if the motion and supporting materials-including the facts considered undisputed-show that the movant is entitled to it . . . .”); see also Caldwell v. Warden, FCI Talladega, 748 F.3d 1090, 1098 (11th Cir. 2014) (holding that the court should consider facts pled in a plaintiff's sworn complaint when considering summary judgment). A genuine dispute of material fact exists when the nonmoving party produces evidence that would allow a reasonable factfinder to return a verdict in its favor. Greenberg, 498 F.3d at 1263. The evidence must be admissible at trial, and if the nonmoving party's evidence “is merely colorable . . . or is not significantly probative . . . summary judgment may be granted.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50 (1986); Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e). For this reason, a “mere ‘scintilla' of evidence supporting the opposing party's position will not suffice.” Walker v. Darby, 911 F.2d 1573, 1577 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252). Only disputes involving material facts are relevant, and materiality is determined by the substantive law applicable to the case. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

         To demonstrate a genuine dispute of material fact, the party opposing summary judgment “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. . . . Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no ‘genuine [dispute] for trial.'” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). “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; see also United States v. Stein, 881 F.3d 853 (11th Cir. 2018) (holding that a plaintiff's self-serving and uncorroborated, but not conclusory, statements in an affidavit or deposition may create an issue of material fact which precludes summary judgment); Feliciano v. City of Miami Beach, 707 F.3d 1244, 1253 (11th Cir. 2013) (citations omitted) (“To be sure, [plaintiff's] sworn statements are self-serving, but that alone does not permit us to disregard them at the summary judgment stage. . . . ‘Courts routinely and properly deny summary judgment on the basis of a party's sworn testimony even though it is self-serving.'”). “Conclusory, uncorroborated allegations by a plaintiff in an affidavit or deposition will not create an issue of fact for trial sufficient to defeat a well-supported summary judgment motion.” Solliday v. F. Officers, 413 Fed.Appx. 206, 207 (11th Cir. 2011) (citing Earley v. Champion Int'l Corp., 907 F.2d 1077, 1081 (11th Cir. 1990)); see also Holifield v. Reno, 115 F.3d 1555, 1564 n.6 (11th Cir. 1997) (holding that conclusory allegations based on subjective beliefs are likewise insufficient to create a genuine dispute of material fact).

         Although factual inferences must be viewed in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party and pro se complaints are entitled to liberal interpretation by the court, a pro se litigant does not escape the burden of sufficiently establishing a genuine dispute of material fact. See Beard v. Banks, 548 U.S. 521, 525 (2006); Brown v. Crawford, 906 F.2d 667, 670 (11th Cir. 1990). Thus, a plaintiff's pro se status alone does not mandate that the court disregard elementary principles of production and proof in a civil case. Here, Reaser fails to demonstrate a genuine dispute of material fact to preclude summary judgment on his claims against Defendants.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Absolute Immunity

         To the extent Reaser sues Defendants in their individual and official capacities, they are entitled to absolute immunity from monetary damages in an official capacity suit. Official capacity lawsuits are “in all respects other than name, . . . treated as a suit against the entity.” Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 166 (1985). “A state official may not be sued in his official capacity unless the state has waived its Eleventh Amendment immunity, or Congress has abrogated the state's immunity. Alabama has not waived its Eleventh Amendment immunity, and Congress has not abrogated Alabama's immunity. Therefore, Alabama state officials are immune from claims brought against them in their official capacities.” Lancaster v. Monroe Cnty., 116 F.3d 1419, 1429 (11th Cir. 1997) (citations omitted).

         In light of the foregoing, Defendants are state actors entitled to sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment for claims seeking monetary damages from them in their official capacities. Id.; Jackson v. Ga. Dep't of Transp., 16 F.3d 1573, 1575 (11th Cir. 1994).

         B. Qualified Immunity

         In response to Reaser's allegations, Defendants argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity against suits in their individual capacities. Qualified immunity offers complete protection from civil damages for government officials sued in their individual capacities if their conduct does not violate “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 739 (2002) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). Qualified immunity is not merely a defense against liability but rather immunity from suit, and the Supreme Court “repeatedly [has] stressed the importance of resolving immunity questions at the earliest possible stage in litigation.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231-32 (2009) (quotation marks and citations omitted). To receive qualified immunity, the public official must first prove he was acting within the scope of his discretionary authority when the allegedly wrongful acts occurred. Lee v. Ferraro, 284 F.3d 1188, 1194 (11th Cir. 2002). The record shows Defendants were acting within the course and scope of their discretionary authority at the time of the events giving rise to Reaser's claims. Reaser must, therefore, allege facts that, when read in a light most favorable to him, show that Defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity. Cottone v. Jenne, 326 F.3d 1352, 1358 (11th Cir. 2003).

         To satisfy his burden, a plaintiff must show two things: (1) that a defendant committed a constitutional violation and (2) that the constitutional right a defendant violated was “clearly established.” Crosby v. Monroe Cnty., 394 F.3d 1328, 1332 (11th Cir. 2004). “To be clearly established, a right must be sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would [have understood] that what he is doing violates that right. In other words, existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.” Reichle v. Howards, 566 U.S. 658, 664 (2012) (quotation marks and citations omitted). “Clearly established law” means (1) “a materially similar case has already been decided”; (2) “a broader, clearly established principle that should control the novel facts of the situation”; or (3) “the conduct involved in the case may so obviously violate the constitution that prior case law is unnecessary.” Gaines v. Wardynski, 871 F.3d 1203, 1208-09 (11th Cir. 2017) (quotation marks and citations omitted). The controlling authority is from “the United States Supreme Court, the Eleventh Circuit, or the highest court in the relevant state.” See id. at 1209. “Qualified immunity gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments, and protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Messerschmidt v. Millender, 565 U.S. 535, 546 (2012) (quotation marks and citations omitted). A per se rule that qualified immunity is inappropriate on summary judgment where a plaintiff has not presented evidence that could sustain an Eighth Amendment excessive force claim would eviscerate the plaintiff's burden of proof to show a constitutional violation once a defendant evokes qualified immunity and turn Rule 56 on its head.[3] See Hope, 536 U.S. at 736; Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001) (holding that a plaintiff bears the burden of showing that a constitutional violation occurred to defeat a defendant's assertion of qualified immunity); see also Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323-24; Fed.R.Civ.P. 56; Skelly v. Okaloosa Cnty. Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs, 456 Fed.Appx. 845, 847-48 (11th Cir. 2012) (engaging in a qualified immunity analysis on Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment excessive force claims and distinguishing between a plaintiff's burden to show a constitutional violation in the first instance from the fact that, once a violation is demonstrated, the Eighth Amendment right always is clearly established).

         The Eleventh Circuit “has stated many times that if case law, in factual terms, has not staked out a bright line, qualified immunity almost always protects the defendant.” Gaines, 871 F.3d at 1210. “Exact factual identity with the previously decided case is not required, but the unlawfulness of the conduct must be apparent from pre-existing law.” Coffin v. Brandau, 642 F.3d 999, 1013 (11th Cir. 2011). If a plaintiff cannot establish both elements to satisfy his burden, the defendants are entitled to qualified immunity, and the court may analyze the elements “in whatever order is deemed most appropriate for the case.” Rehberg v. Paulk, 611 F.3d 828, 839 (11th Cir. 2010) (citing Pearson, 555 U.S. at 241-42).

         1. Summary Judgment Facts ...


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