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Trent v. Stafford

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

August 29, 2014

JO-EL JOHNSON TRENT, Plaintiff,
v.
C/O STAFFORD, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JACKSON L. KISER, Senior District Judge.

Jo-El Johnson Trent, a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se, filed a verified Complaint, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983, alleging violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. Plaintiff names as defendants: former Wallens Ridge State Prison ("WRSP") Correctional Officers ("C/Os") Gary Stafford, Brandon Woodard, Mark Fannon, and David Greer; current WRSP C/O Randy Phillips; and Red Onion State Prison ("ROSP") Inmate Hearings Officer ("IHO") Misty Counts. Plaintiff requests declaratory and equitable relief and damages against Defendants in their individual and official capacities. Presently before me is IHO Counts and C/O Phillips' motion for summary judgment, to which Plaintiff responded.[1] After reviewing the record, I grant the motion for summary judgment in part for the claim against IHO Counts and deny it in part for the claim against C/O Phillips.

I.

A.

Plaintiff alleges the following facts in the verified Complaint about his incarceration at WRSP. An extraction team of C/Os was called to Plaintiff's cell on March 27, 2013. Lt. Greer[2] ordered Plaintiff to back up to the tray slot on the cell door so staff could apply handcuffs. Plaintiff complied and backed up to the door, but Lt. Greer refused to open the tray slot. Despite being compliant and not combative, Sgt. Fannon sprayed Oleoresin Capsicum ("OC") spray[3] inside Plaintiff's cell, and the extraction team immediately entered the cell. Plaintiff was "attempting to surrender" when:

[C/O] Phillips took Plaintiff to the ground and started to repeatedly punch Plaintiff in the face. [C/O] Woodard then started to punch and kick the Plaintiff. After Plaintiff was picked up off the floor, [Lt.] Greer bit Plaintiff on the right ear. Plaintiff was placed on the bed where [Lt.] Greer struck Plaintiff 2 to 3 times in the nose with his fist. Plaintiff was rolled on to Plaintiff's back where [Lt.] Greer and other defendants attempted to kick the Plaintiff in the genitals. Plaintiff was then strapped down in 5-point restraints[4].... and was refused bathroom breaks and denied food.

(Compl. 3.) Plaintiff argues that C/O Phillips inflicted cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment, by using excessive force. In contrast, C/O Phillips avers he had no involvement with the cell extraction and was working in a different part of WRSP during the incident.

B.

Later that same day, Plaintiff was transferred to ROSP where he received institutional charges for spitting on another person, disobeying an order, and simple assault on a non-offender for events related to the cell extraction. IHO Counts found Plaintiff guilty of the charges because Plaintiff did not attend the disciplinary hearings and the evidence in the record supported finding him guilty. Plaintiff avers that he was not present at the hearings "due to no fault of his own, " but IHO Counts avers that he was informed that Plaintiff had refused to appear for both disciplinary hearings. Plaintiff was penalized with thirty-days' segregation for simple assault and spitting and with a $5.00 fine for disobeying an order. Plaintiff presently argues that IHO Counts violated due process by convicting Plaintiff in abstentia.[5]

II.

CIO Phillips and IHO Counts filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that they are entitled to qualified immunity. Qualified immunity permits "government officials performing discretionary functions... [to be] shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known."[6] Harlow v. Fitzgerald , 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). Once a defendant raises the qualified immunity defense, a plaintiff bears the burden to show that a defendant's conduct violated the plaintiff's right. Bryant v. Muth , 994 F.2d 1082, 1086 (4th Cir. 1993).

A party is entitled to summary judgment if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see Williams v. Griffin , 952 F.2d 820, 823 (4th Cir. 1991) (recognizing a party is entitled to summary judgment if the record as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find in favor of the non-movant). "Material facts" are those facts necessary to establish the elements of a party's cause of action. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A genuine issue of material fact exists if, in viewing the record and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, a reasonable factfinder could return a verdict for the non-movant. Id . The moving party has the burden of showing - "that is, pointing out to the district court - that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). If the movant satisfies this burden, then the non-movant must set forth specific, admissible facts that demonstrate the existence of a genuine issue of fact for trial. Id. at 322-23. A court may not resolve disputed facts, weigh the evidence, or make determinations of credibility. Russell v. Microdyne Corp. , 65 F.3d 1229, 1239 (4th Cir. 1995); Sosebee v. Murphy , 797 F.2d 179, 182 (4th Cir. 1986). Instead, a court accepts as true the evidence of the non-moving party and resolves all internal conflicts and inferences in the non-moving party's favor. Charbonnages de France v. Smith , 597 F.2d 406, 414 (4th Cir. 1979).

III.

A prisoner alleging excessive force in violation of the Eighth Amendment must show that a defendant "inflicted unnecessary and wanton pain and suffering." Whitley v. Albers , 475 U.S. 312, 320 (1986); see Wilson v. Seiter , 501 U.S. 294, 298 (1991) (holding that an Eighth Amendment claim for excessive force requires an objective deprivation of a basic human need and that prison officials subjectively acted with a sufficiently culpable state of mind). Therefore, the proper inquiry is whether the force applied was "in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline or maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm." Whitley , 475 U.S. at 320-21. The subjective component encompasses such factors as the need for the application of force, the relationship between the need and the amount of force that was used, the extent of injury inflicted, the extent of the threat to the safety of staff and inmates reasonably perceived by responsible officials, and any efforts made to ...


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