United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division
ELIZABETH K. DILLON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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. 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.
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.
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
Standard of Review
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).
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).
Findings of Fact
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
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.
court makes the following factual findings based on the
undisputed evidence presented at trial.
Gorham was incarcerated within the Virginia Department of
Corrections (VDOC) at Red Onion during the time relevant to
O'Quinn was a correctional officer employed by the VDOC
at Red Onion during the time relevant to this action.
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
only people who know what Gorham was doing inside his cell
immediately preceding the Incident are Gorham and
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
Gilbert, who was the supervisor, and other officers,
responded following the Incident.
Gorham wiped his face with a wash cloth soon after the
Incident and, shortly thereafter, was offered water by Lt.
Gilbert, which he declined.
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.
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.
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.
housing unit has a Rapid Eye Video recording system, and the
video (which has no audio) from the Incident was retained.
(D. Ex. 2.)
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,
C210 cell door window pulses with flashes of at least red,
blue, green, and orange colors at times.
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
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.
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.
Correctional Officer Adam Mullins searched cell C210 after
the Incident. He has no recall of his ...