United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division
DONELL J. BLOUNT, SR., Plaintiff,
OFFICER FARMER, ET AL., Defendants.
Glen E. Conrad Chief United States District Judge
Donell J. Blount, Sr., a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se, filed this civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Defendant Farmer used excessive force by spraying him with OC spray and that Farmer and the other defendant officers acted with deliberate indifference to the risk that Blount would suffer harm without decontamination. Defendants have moved for summary judgment, and Blount has responded, making the matter ripe for disposition. After review of the record, the court concludes that the motion for summary judgment must be denied.
Blount, an inmate at Red Onion State Prison, alleges the following sequence of events. On April 20, 2014, at 11:48 a.m., Blount overheard Officer Farmer tell another officer that recreation was over for C-3 pod. Blount hit the door window with his hand and called to Farmer about recreation. When Farmer did not respond, Blount went to the back right corner of his cell. Farmer opened Blount's tray slot and sprayed OC gas on him. The gas struck Blount on the left side of his face, his neck, head, and left arm, which he raised to shield his face. The substance caused Blount's skin, eyes, nose, and throat to burn, and caused coughing, sneezing, and large amounts of mucus. He had to use his emergency asthma inhaler. Yet, because the gas did not hit Blount directly in his eyes, nose, or mouth, he was able to breathe and talk.
Farmer accused Blount of striking the sprinkler in his cell, which Blount denied. Officers Parks, Combs, Edwards, and Maiden were near enough to the cell to see the effects of the gas on Blount, but left the area without decontaminating him. Blount tried unsuccessfully to wash off the gas in his sink and then "covered his cell door window to get medical care." (Blount Affid. ¶ 9, ECF No. 23.) When Sgt. Messer arrived, Blount told him that Farmer had sprayed him with OC spray for no reason and without decontamination. Farmer denied spraying Blount, but said he opened Blount's tray slot to restrain him. Blount was coughing, sneezing, and blowing mucus out of his nose. Two other inmates in nearby cells told Messer that Farmer had sprayed Blount.
Messer and Combs said they could not smell gas. About 35 minutes after Blount was sprayed with gas, Nurse Cox came to evaluate him. She noted on camera that the skin on his left arm and neck was red. She reported that she did not smell gas, but stated that her nose was stopped up by a cold. Messer had Blount escorted to the shower for decontamination, but the water was too hot for Blount to finish washing off the spray. Blount showed Messer spots of gas on his cell wall, floor, and bed, and asked for testing of his clothes for OC spray. He also asked Messer to remove him from the contaminated cell because of the remaining fumes. Messer refused. Blount's skin continued to burn from the gas into the next day.
Defendants offer a different version of events. The officers report that on April 20, about 11:45 a.m., Blount began kicking his cell door and rattling the window. Farmer came over to the cell and told Blount to stop being disruptive, and Parks told him to stop kicking his door. Farmer states that his canister of OC gas remained in his holster throughout his conversation with Blount, who continued kicking the door, cursed at staff, and covered his window. Officers called Sgt. Messer. While they waited for the sergeant, Farmer ordered Blount to back up to the tray slot. Blount backed up as ordered, but as Farmer opened the tray slot, Blount walked away from the door. Combs, Edwards, and Parks, who were with Farmer, state that they did not see anyone spray gas on Blount and did not smell any gas in or around Blount's cell. Moreover, they report that Blount did not appear to be in any distress from OC gas, as he was able to yell and talk and showed no signs of having breathing difficulties, as would normally happen when the gas is sprayed. Messer also states that he did not smell OC gas from outside the cell door or, later, inside the cell, but nevertheless, he asked a nurse to examine Blount. The nurse observed that Blount did not appear to be in acute distress or to be having breathing difficulties.
Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, an award of summary judgment is appropriate only "if the movant shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). For a party's evidence to raise a genuine issue of material fact to avoid summary judgment, it must be "such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). "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 issue for trial." Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007) (omitting quotation).
"In reviewing the evidence, the court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party and may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence." Williams v. Staples. Inc.. 372 F.3d 662, 667 (4th Cir. 2004); see also Gray v. Spillman, 925 F.2d 90, 95 (4th Cir. 1991) (at this stage of the proceedings, "[i]t is not [the court's] job to weigh the evidence, to count how many affidavits favor the plaintiff and how many oppose him, or to disregard stories that seem hard to believe"). Where the record contains an unchallenged videotape capturing the events in question, the court must only credit the plaintiffs version of the facts to the extent that it is not contradicted by the videotape. Scott, 550 U.S. at 380; Iko v. Shreye, 535 F.3d 225, 230 (4th Cir. 2008).
A. Excessive Force
"[O]nly the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain" rises to the level of an Eighth Amendment violation. Whitley v. Albers. 475 U.S. 312, 319 (1986). The court conducts an objective inquiry - whether "the alleged wrongdoing was objectively harmful enough to establish a constitutional violation, " and a subjective inquiry - whether a specific prison official "acted with a sufficiently culpable state of mind." Hudson v. McMillian. 503 U.S. 1, 8 (1992) (omitting internal quotations).
The objective component of an excessive force claim focuses on "the nature of the force, " which must be "nontrivial, " Wilkins v. Gaddy. 559 U.S. 34, 39 (2010), and can be met by "the pain itself, " even if the prisoner has no enduring injury." Williams v. Benjamin, 77 F.3d 756, 762 (4th Cir. 1996). The subjective component focuses on "whether force was applied in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm." Hudson, 503 U.S. at 5. Factors the court may consider include (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 officers, and (5) any efforts made to temper the severity of a forceful response. Whitley, 475 U.S. at 321.
"When prison officials maliciously and sadistically use force to cause harm, contemporary standards of decency [and the Eighth Amendment] always are violated." Hudson, 503 U.S. at 9. It is well established that prison officials violate the Eighth Amendment when they use pepper spray against an inmate in "quantities greater than necessary or for the sole purpose of infliction of pain." Iko, 535 F.3d at 240 (omitting citations); Tedder v. Johnson, 527 F.App'x 269 (4th Cir. June 12, 2013) (reversing grant of summary ...