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Gorham v. Barksdale

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

March 31, 2018

HENRY GORHAM, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
EARL BARKSDALE, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ELIZABETH K. DILLON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Henry Gorham, Jr., a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se, filed a civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging, inter alia, that Officer Austin O'Quinn used excessive force against him and Lt. Christopher Gilbert subjected him to cruel and unusual living conditions by placing him in another cell contaminated with OC spray.[1] A bench trial was held on May 2-3, 2017, and at the conclusion of trial and for the reasons stated on the record, the court granted Lt. Gilbert's motion for judgment as a matter of law as to the living conditions claim. See Dkt. No. 95. Accordingly, as to that claim, the court will enter judgment in favor of Lt. Gilbert, and only Mr. Gorham's excessive force claim against Officer O'Quinn remains.

         During the bench trial, all parties presented evidence and argument. Mr. Gorham called inmates Kelvin Canada, Peter Mukuria, and Deshawn Kelly, as well as Red Onion State Prison (Red Onion) Operations Manager Sherry Shortridge and Correctional Officer Adam Mullins. Mr. Gorham also testified on his own behalf. The defendants called current and former Red Onion employees Brian Owens (a former correctional officer), Nurse Patricia Adams, Officer Mark Mullins, Officer Kevin Eldridge, Grievance Coordinator Jennifer Messer, and defendants Correctional Officer O'Quinn and Lt. Christopher Gilbert.

         Based on the evidence presented at trial, the court issues this memorandum opinion, which constitutes its findings of fact and conclusions of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a). For the reasons stated herein, the court will enter judgment in favor of Mr. Gorham and against Officer O'Quinn and will award Mr. Gorham $2, 000 in damages.[2]

         I. DISCUSSION

         A. Standard of Review

         Rule 52(a)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires that the court make specific findings of fact and state conclusions of law separately in any action tried without a jury. Specifically, the trial judge must appraise the testimony and demeanor of witnesses, as well as weigh the evidence and choose among conflicting inferences and conclusions that seem most reasonable. See Burgess v Farrell Lines, Inc., 335 F.2d 885, 889-90 (4th Cir. 1964). In this regard, the trial court has a unique opportunity to evaluate the credibility of witnesses and weigh the evidence accordingly. See Johnson v. SmithKline Beecham Corp., 724 F.3d 337, 345 (3d Cir. 2013) (citing Inwood Labs. v. Ives Labs., 456 U.S. 844, 855 (1982)). The trial judge has the inherent right to disregard testimony of any witness when satisfied that the witness is not telling the truth or the testimony is inherently improbable due to inaccuracy, uncertainty, interest, or bias. Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); see Columbus-Am. Discovery Grp. v. Atl. Mut. Ins. Co., 56 F.3d 556, 567 (4th Cir. 1995) (internal quotation omitted) (stating that the factfinder is in a better position to make judgments about the reliability of some forms of evidence, including evaluation of the credibility of witnesses).

         A trial court must do more than announce statements of ultimate fact, United States ex rel. Belcon, Inc. v. Sherman Constr. Co., 800 F.2d 1321, 1324 (4th Cir. 1986), but is not required “to make findings on all facts presented or to make detailed evidentiary findings . . . . The ultimate test as to the adequacy of the findings will always be whether they are sufficiently comprehensive and pertinent to the issues to provide a basis for decision and whether they are supported by the evidence, ” Darter v. Greenville Cmty. Hotel Corp., 301 F.2d 70, 75 (4th Cir. 1962).

         B. Findings of Fact

         This case turns on whether the court believes the testimony of plaintiff Henry Gorham (“Gorham”) or the testimony of Officer O'Quinn (“O'Quinn). Gorham testified at trial that, in the week prior to the incident, he had exchanged words or threats with O'Quinn. He said that on April 1, 2015, he had placed his lunch tray in the cell door box to be picked up after the sliding door was opened by another officer. He was standing at the sink in the cell fixing coffee when, without provocation or justification, O'Quinn sprayed him with OC on the right side of his face. O'Quinn testified at trial that he had not exchanged any words with Gorham. When picking up lunch trays, he arrived at Gorham's cell and heard him cursing and saying that he was going to break the sprinkler head. He testified that Gorham was standing on the table next to the cell door and was swinging at the sprinkler head, above the table, with his lunch tray. He repeatedly told him to stop, Gorham did not stop, and he administered a one-half to one second burst of OC spray. He stated that he believed there was a threat to the security and safety of the other offenders due to the flooding potential. He then called for assistance. O'Quinn's accounts about the lunch tray varied.

         Many of the facts are undisputed, and other facts require the court to make credibility assessments, especially as to the credibility of Gorham and O'Quinn, as noted above. The court first addresses the factual findings based on undisputed evidence and then will address the credibility assessments and factual findings based on those assessments.

         The court makes the following factual findings based on the undisputed evidence presented at trial.

         1. Gorham was incarcerated within the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) at Red Onion during the time relevant to this action.

         2. O'Quinn was a correctional officer employed by the VDOC at Red Onion during the time relevant to this action.

         3. On April 1, 2015, O'Quinn, was picking up lunch trays in the C housing unit and put his wrist in the tray slot in Gorham's cell (C210) and administered a one-half to one second burst of OC spray on Gorham, hitting Gorham on the right side of his face, at approximately 12:05 p.m. (the “Incident”).

         4. The only people who know what Gorham was doing inside his cell immediately preceding the Incident are Gorham and O'Quinn.

         5. After being sprayed with OC, Gorham went to the toilet and vomited. He washed his face and eyes with a wash cloth. The spray caused Gorham to be blind for a minute, and to suffer a burning sensation on his face, coughing, congestion, blurred vision, and itchy private parts when the fumes got into his pants.

         6. Lt. Gilbert, who was the supervisor, and other officers, responded following the Incident.

         7. Gorham wiped his face with a wash cloth soon after the Incident and, shortly thereafter, was offered water by Lt. Gilbert, which he declined.

         8. Gorham was taken to another cell and was assessed by a nurse approximately fifteen minutes after the Incident, and he was decontaminated by shower approximately forty-five minutes after the Incident.

         9. At the time of the Incident, Gorham was housed in C210. There is a window on the back wall of the cell and in the cell door. To the immediate left of the door (if you face the cell at the door) is a small table attached to the cell wall. The table is about five feet from the ceiling. Above the table is a sprinkler head and a vent. Sometimes inmates stand on their toilets or their tables, depending on the location of their cell vents, to talk to one another through the vents. To the left of the table is the bed. There is a sink on the right cell wall and a toilet beyond the sink. You can see the sink clearly from the cell door window.

         10. Gorham is six feet, two or three inches tall. He has a no kneel order because of bad knees, but has been seen before standing on things in his cell to talk through the vent.

         11. The housing unit has a Rapid Eye Video recording system, and the video (which has no audio) from the Incident was retained. (D. Ex. 2.)[3]

         12. The Rapid Eye recording includes flashes of all colors of the rainbow from the sun shining through windows. The stair railings are purple and yellow at times and pulse with color. These pulses of color are also seen at cell door windows, including C210.

         13. The C210 cell door window pulses with flashes of at least red, blue, green, and orange colors at times.

         14. The Rapid Eye recording shows an officer opening the narrow sliding cell doors that cover the slot under the box on the cell door. The recording also shows O'Quinn following behind that officer, such that they are not at the cells at the same time, and picking up food trays with a cart. Gorham is seen at his door shortly after the officer opens the sliding cell door and before O'Quinn arrives at the cell. O'Quinn is seen at ¶ 210 with the cart and standing at the door of C210 for some time. It is impossible to see what he is doing with regard to OC spray or lunch trays without speculating.

         15. A hand-held video camera was used to record the response to C210 following the Incident. (D. Ex. 3.) The recording shows Gorham wearing a white t-shirt and then putting on his orange shirt before he was transferred to another cell. Gorham is seen wiping his face with a wash cloth. While the recording shows only a portion of the table, a photograph and papers can be seen on the table. A stack of books can be seen on the floor near the table. Gorham also had a television in his cell. Lt. Gilbert is seen entering the cell and coming back out, but the camera is never taken in to the cell to show the sprinkler head or the whole table. Lt. Gilbert can be heard telling Gorham he was just checking it out. Gorham states, “What's supposed to have been up there?” Lt. Gilbert responds, “Nothing supposed to be up there. I was checking to make sure you hadn't tampered with it.” Gorham says, “What been tampered?” Lt. Gilbert responds, “Your sprinkler head.” Gorham says, “He told you I tampered with it? Ain't you going to check it? Lt. Gilbert tells him that he has already “been in it.” Later, Gorham is heard asking about the “speaker, ” and Lt. Gilbert explains that he was talking about the sprinkler.

         16. The hand-held video recording also shows a meeting between Lt. Gilbert and O'Quinn following Gorham's placement in another cell. Lt. Gilbert conveys his understanding of what O'Quinn told him and notes that his inspection of the sprinkler head found it to be intact. He notes that a cell search would be conducted for whatever items may have been used to try to destroy state property and a property inventory would be completed. O'Quinn then says, “I went to pick up trays and offender H. Gorham was on top of his table with his tray trying to bust the sprinkler head, so I administered a half to one second burst of OC spray to stop him from doing so.” O'Quinn makes no mention of his inspection or possession of the tray, despite being present for Lt. Gilbert's statements.

         17. Correctional Officer Adam Mullins searched cell C210 after the Incident. He has no recall of his ...


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