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Wubneh v. Hutchinson

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

March 12, 2019

J. HUTCHINSON, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Muluken Wubneh is an inmate who was incarcerated at Keen Mountain Correctional Center ("KMCC") within the Virginia Department of Corrections ("VDOC"). On November 9, 2017, he filed a pro se Complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Defendant J. Hutchinson, a former correctional officer at KMCC, violated his Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment by verbally and physically assaulting Plaintiff in his cell. This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. [ECF Nos. 15, 20.] For the reasons that follow, I find that that both parties have presented genuine issues of material fact before the Court, and their motions for summary judgment motion are therefore denied.



         Plaintiff alleges that on April 16, 2016, he was using a telephone in a segregation unit when an unidentified correctional officer unplugged the phone cord. (PL's Compl. at 3 [ECF No. 1].) He then contacted Correctional Officer J. Harrison, who reconnected the plug. Id. Subsequently, Defendant Hutchinson approached Plaintiffs cell "in an aggressive, threatening manner" and loudly yelled, "You're a snitch! Snitches don't use the phone in segregation while I'm working!" This, according to Plaintiff, put his safety at risk. As Plaintiff was then attempting to dial the phone, Defendant yanked the phone out of Plaintiff s hand and "slammed the tray slot on [his] right hand . . . causing [him] painful injury." (See id.; see also PL's Mot. for Summary Judgment, Attach. A, (hereinafter "PL's First Aff.") [ECF No. 15-1].) Plaintiff alleges that, during this encounter, he was "not violating any prison rules, nor was [he] acting in a disruptive manner." (PL's Compl. at 4.) Following the incident, Plaintiff requested a nurse, who gave Plaintiff an ice pack and scheduled him to see a doctor. (PL's First Aff.)

         Plaintiff appended to his Complaint a VDOC "Complaint and Treatment Form." (PL's Compl. Ex. A.) Though portions of this handwritten record are not legible, it generally shows that Plaintiff visited a prison medical clinic on April 21, 2016, complaining of right arm and hand pain. Id. He had an "interaction [with an] officer when [the] phone was removed from [his] hand due to failure to comply [with] instructions." This, Plaintiff reported, caused pain in his right hand. Id. He also noted a history of chronic right shoulder pain. During a physical examination, he was found to have full range of motion and full strength. He was prescribed some Tylenol that he was advised to take for one week. IcL On April 25 he sought an appointment with a doctor because he wanted an arm sling for his right arm. IcL Staff recorded that he was not in acute distress and he was able to raise his arm without difficulty. He was placed on a doctor's list "for further evaluation." Id.

         Plaintiff also appended to his Complaint sworn affidavits by L. Thompson and B, Floyd. (PL's Compl., Exs. B, C [ECF No. 1-1].) It appears these individuals were fellow inmates who were witnesses to the events on April 16. IcL Thompson states that he was standing at his cell door on the date of the incident when he observed officers yelling and slamming a cell tray slot. (Id., Ex. B.) Plaintiff then "screamed in pain and requested immediate medical attention, which was denied." (Id.) Similarly, Floyd alleges that he saw correctional officers at cell 243 arguing, and while he could not hear what was said, he saw Hutchinson "yelling something then Bam!!! real loud and my next door tray slot shuts." (PL's Compl. Ex. C.)


         Defendant appended affidavits from himself and Institutional Investigator Brian Mitchell to his brief in support of his Motion for Summary Judgment. Defendant alleges that on the day in question, Plaintiff called him over to his cell door complaining that his phone call had been disconnected. (Def.'s Br. in Supp. Mot. for Summary Judgment, Enclosure A, Hutchinson Aff. ¶ 4 [ECF No. 21-2].) Officer J. Harrison was also present at that time. Id. Defendant instructed Plaintiff to hand over the phone so he could verify the status of the disconnected call. Id. Plaintiff responded, "if you touch the fucking phone, I am going to break your fucking arm!" Id. He then attempted to pull the phone receiver back into his cell, but lost his grip, providing Defendant with an opportunity to lift the phone out of the cell. Id. After Plaintiff had pulled his arm back into the cell, Defendant secured the tray slot. Id. He alleges that he did "not assault [Plaintiff], nor use excessive force against him." Id. ¶ 5. Following the incident, Defendant placed an institutional disciplinary charge against Plaintiff for "Threatening Bodily Harm to any Person" and Officer Harrison placed a charge against Plaintiff for "Tampering with Security Materials, Devices or Equipment." Id.

         Investigator Mitchell had been responsible for investigating the incident after he received a written complaint from Plaintiff in late April 2016. (See Def.'s Br. in Supp. Mot. for Summary Judgment, Enclosure A, Mitchell Aff., Enclosure to Aff.. ("Investigation Report") at 1 [ECF No. 21-1].) Mitchell noted that when Plaintiff was removed from his cell for an interview, he had his arm wrapped in a sling. Id. He did not wince or complain, however, when he was cuffed from behind. During the interview, Mitchell inquired about the tray slot, but Plaintiff "became agitated" and told Mitchell to "look at the camera." Plaintiff also became agitated when pressed for details about his subsequent visit with a nurse, and he terminated the interview and requested to be returned to his cell. Id. Mitchell later interviewed Officer Harrison, who was with Defendant during the incident and told a substantially similar story to Plaintiff. Id. at 2.

         Finally, Mitchell interviewed Lieutenant C. Shelton, who had performed a security check on April 16 sometime after the incident had occurred. Id. Shelton stated that Plaintiff did not report to her any allegations of assault, but he did state that his arm had been hurt while using his telephone. Plaintiff declined to elaborate, and Shelton did not see any injuries to Plaintiff. Id. Based on the accounts of Harrison, Shelton, and the parties, as well as his review of the medical evidence and video recordings of the incident, Mitchell concluded that there was "no evidence to support [Plaintiffs] claim that he was assaulted by staff." IcL at 2-3.

         Finally, Defendant appended to his motion a "Rapid Eye Video" of Plaintiff s cell block on April 16, 2016. Unfortunately, neither the video evidence nor any other information contained in the record are sufficient to confirm the exact location of Plaintiffs cell in the video or the identities of the individuals in the video at any given moment.[1] Moreover, even if this information were available, the poor quality of the video inhibits any reliable determination, as a matter of law, as to whether Defendant closed Plaintiffs hand in a tray slot on his cell door. Indeed, Mitchell's investigative report also notes that "[d]ue to the location of the cell and distance from the cell to the camera, the footage at the cell by itself cannot be used to support or contradict the allegation of assault." (Investigative Report at 2-3.)


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 provides that a court should grant summary judgment "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." "As to materiality... [o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby. Inc.. 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). In order to preclude summary judgment, the dispute about a material fact must be "'genuine,' that is, if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. However, if the evidence of a genuine issue of material fact "is merely colorable or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted." Id. at 250. In considering a motion for summary judgment, a court must view the record as a whole ...

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