United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division
Adrian Nathaniel Bacon, Pro Se Plaintiff.
Kate E. Dwyer, Assistant Attorney General, Office of the Attorney General of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, for Defendants.
JAMES P. JONES, District Judge.
Adrian Nathaniel Bacon, a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se, filed this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that two correctional officers at Red Onion State Prison used excessive force against him by "pull[ing him] through the tray slot" of his cell door, and that other officers failed to intervene. (Compl. 3, ECF No. 1.) The defendants have filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, asserting that because the Complaint fails to state any claim actionable under § 1983, they are entitled to qualified immunity. Bacon responded to the motion with an amendment stating additional alleged facts about the incident. Even liberally construing the plaintiff's amended allegations, I conclude that the defendants are entitled to qualified immunity.
The facts appearing of record are as follows, recited in the light most favorable to Bacon. On September 11, 2013, after correctional officers searched his cell, Bacon refused to reenter the cell. Instead, he knelt down outside the cell door and asked to speak to a supervisor. Defendant Webb said he was the supervisor and, with defendant Wood's help, picked Bacon up and put him inside his cell. After his door closed, Bacon remained in a kneeling position and again asked to speak to a supervisor. Wood allegedly stated, "I got your supervisor." (Compl. 3, ECF No. 1.) Without first ordering Bacon to stand and back up to the tray slot for removal of his handcuffs, Wood and Webb "pulled [Bacon] through the tray slot." (Am. Compl. 1, ECF No. 40.) Bacon seeks monetary damages against Wood and Webb for excessive force and against three other officers - Brinkley, Ross and White - for failing to intervene to protect him.
A nurse treated Bacon immediately after the incident for abrasions and lacerations. Later that day, Bacon filed an emergency grievance, stating that the pinky finger on his right hand might be broken. A nurse assessed the finger and referred Bacon to the doctor, who diagnosed the injury as a "PIP dislocation - reduced unable to flex at MIP or MED joint... tendon injury - fracture?" ( Id. ) An X ray showed no fracture, only mild tissue swelling. Bacon states that the finger remained crooked and painful for months thereafter.
The defendants assert that Bacon's allegations, even taken as true, do not satisfy the objective and subjective elements of an excessive force claim as defined by the Supreme Court in Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 319 (1986) or a claim for failure to intervene. Therefore, the defendants argue, Bacon has not stated any constitutional claim against them, and they are entitled to qualified immunity from suit. Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001).
Law enforcement officers performing discretionary functions "are 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." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). An officer is entitled to qualified immunity if the court finds that either: (1) the facts, taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, do not present the elements necessary to state a violation of a constitutional right; or (2) the right was not clearly established such that it would not have been "clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.'" Henry v. Purnell, 501 F.3d 374, 377 (4th Cir. 2007) (quoting Saucier, 533 U.S. at 201, 202). Only if I find that the allegations do state the elements of a constitutional violation must I also decide whether the contours of the right were clearly established. Saucier, 533 U.S. at 201-202; see also Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009) (noting that judge may decide, case by case, which facet of the qualified immunity analysis should first be considered).
It is well established that only "the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain... constitutes cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the Eighth Amendment." Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 5 (1992) (quoting Whitley, 475 U.S. at 319) (internal quotation marks omitted). On the other hand, not every malevolent touch by a prison guard amounts to deprivation of constitutional rights. Hudson, 503 U.S. at 9.
In the excessive force context, the court must inquire whether officials subjectively applied force "in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline or maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm" ( id. at 6) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted) and "[whether] the alleged wrongdoing was objectively harmful enough' to establish a constitutional violation." Id. at 8 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted) (emphasis added). The subjective inquiry considers: (1) the need for application of force, (2) the relationship between the need and the amount of force that was used, (3) the extent of the injury, (4) the threat reasonably perceived by the responsible officials based on the facts known to them, and (5) any efforts made to temper the severity of a forceful response. Id. at 7. To prove the objective component of his excessive force claim, Bacon must show that the correctional officers' actions were more than a "de minimis use[ ] of physical force." Id. at 10.
In short, the "core judicial inquiry [is]... the nature of the force - specifically, whether it was nontrivial and was applied... maliciously and sadistically to cause harm." Wilkins v. Gaddy, 559 U.S. 34, 39 (2010) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The type and extent of the injury the inmate suffered is relevant to both of these determinations: as a factor in determining "whether the use of force could plausibly have been thought necessary in a particular ...