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Harris v. Allison

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 6, 2016

SEAN HARRIS, Plaintiff,
S. ALLISON, et al., Defendants.



         The plaintiff, Sean Harris, filed this civil suit against the defendants, the District of Columbia ("District" or "D.C.") and three officers who work at the District of Columbia Jail ("D.C. Jail" or "Jail"), alleging that in January 2014 the officers violated federal and state laws by "savagely beat[ing]" him and "injur[ing] him physically, mentally, and emotionally." Amended Complaint ("Am. Compl.") ¶ 7. Currently pending before the Court is the Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment ("Defs.’ Summ. J. Mot."), which is opposed by the plaintiff, Plaintiff’s Opposition to Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment ("Pl.’s Opp’n"). Upon careful consideration of the parties’ submissions, [1] the Court concludes for the reasons that follow that the defendants’ motion must be granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The "[p]laintiff was incarcerated in D.C. Jail on January 8, 2014, when he learned that his grandmother died." Pl.’s Facts ¶ 1. At some point during that day, the plaintiff spoke with the defendant officers at the jail, requesting that they take him to a "safe cell" in the jail’s infirmary instead of his normal inmate cell ("cell"), so that he could potentially receive mental health services, after learning about his grandmother’s death. See id. ¶ 2. They denied his request, see id. ¶ 3(A), and thereafter, the plaintiff was handcuffed and escorted to his cell[2] by two of the three defendant officers, see id. ¶ 3(B); see also Pl.’s Opp’n, Exhibit ("Ex.") 1 (Defendant Officer Allison’s Discovery Responses) at 6; Pl.’s Opp’n, Ex. 3 (Defendant Officer Hargraves’ Discovery Responses) at 6.[3] Upon arriving at his cell, the two defendant officers removed the handcuffs and placed the plaintiff in his cell. Pl.’s Facts ¶ 4. However, the plaintiff refused to remain inside his cell. Id. ("[The plaintiff] refused to go inside his cell . . . ."). Rather, he insisted on going to the safe cell, believing that going to the safe cell was "protocol" for individuals with mental health complaints and that the protocol was not being followed. Id. (citing Pl.’s Opp’n, Ex. 4 (Deposition of Sean Harris ("Harris Dep.")) at 46, 47, 67, 69). Moreover, he also felt unsafe when he was with his cellmate. See Pl.’s Opp’n, Ex. 4 (Harris Dep.) at 46:16-47:2. Based on these perspectives, the plaintiff "came out of [his] cell, " Pl.’s Facts ¶ 5; see also Pl.’s Opp’n at 5 ("[The plaintiff] came out of the cell."), and was physically restrained ultimately by all three of the defendant officers, [4] see Pl.’s Facts ¶ 5; see also Pl.’s Opp’n, Ex. 2 (Defendant Officer Walker’s Discovery Responses) at 6. After the defendant officers subdued the plaintiff, they took him to the infirmary, where he was examined by a doctor. See Pl.’s Facts ¶ 5; see also Defs.’ Summ. J. Mot., Ex. 4 (January 8, 2014 Medical Note ("Jan. 8, 2014 Medical Note")) at 1. According to the doctor, the plaintiff suffered neither "acute lesion[s]" nor "gross edema/ecchymosis, " Defs.’ Summ. J. Mot., Ex. 4 (Jan. 8, 2014 Medical Note) at 1, and he complained only of experiencing "neck pain" and "elbow pain." Id. The plaintiff insists that he also experienced pain in his back and legs. See Pl.’s Facts ¶ 6.

         The encounter with the three defendant officers resulted in the filing of this case by the plaintiff.


         Courts will grant a motion for 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." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). "A fact is material if it ‘might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law, ’ and a dispute about a material fact is genuine ‘if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non[-]moving party.’" Steele v. Schafer, 535 F.3d 689, 692 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)).

         In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, "[t]he evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255 (citation omitted). "Credibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge . . . ruling on a motion for summary judgment . . . ." Id. The movant has the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact and that the non-moving party "fail[ed] to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

         In responding to a summary judgment motion, the non-moving party "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986) (citations omitted). Accordingly, the non-moving party must not rely on "mere allegations or denials . . . but must set forth specific facts showing that there [are] genuine issue[s] for trial." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248 (one ellipsis omitted) (quoting First Nat’l Bank of Ariz. v. Cities Serv. Co., 391 U.S. 253, 288 (1968)). "The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [non-moving party’s] position [is] insufficient" to withstand a motion for summary judgment; instead "there must be [some] evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [non-movant]." Id. at 252.

         And significant to this case, where the court has the benefit of video evidence, as it does here, it should "view[] the facts in the light depicted by the videotape" and need not rely on "visible fiction" when the non-moving party’s version of events is "so utterly discredited by the record that no reasonable jury could have believed [it]." Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380-81 (2007).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. The Plaintiff’s Eighth Amendment Claim

         According to the complaint, the three defendant officers "used excessive force against [the plaintiff] in violation of . . . the Fourth Amendment" of the Constitution. Am. Compl. ¶ 19. As an initial matter, the Court concludes that the plaintiff has failed to state a claim under the Fourth Amendment because he does not dispute that he was "incarcerated" at D.C. Jail on the day of the alleged altercation between him and the defendant officers. Pl.’s Facts. ¶ 1. Given his status as a convicted prisoner, [5] the plaintiff’s claim of excessive force must derive from the Eighth Amendment, and not the Fourth Amendment, of the Constitution. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 395 n.10 (1989) ("After conviction, the Eighth Amendment ‘serves as the primary source of substantive protection in cases where the deliberate use of force is challenged as excessive and unjustified.’" (ellipses omitted) (quoting Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 327 (1986))); Hamlett v. Mattox, No. 90-CV-55 (OG), 1990 WL 236103, at *3 (D.D.C. Dec. 21, 1990) ("In Graham, the Supreme Court indicated that the Eight[h] Amendment does not provide protection against claims of excessive force until after conviction." (citation omitted)). Because the plaintiff has not sought leave of the Court to cure this deficiency, and it will not now allow him to amend his complaint through his summary judgment submissions, e.g., Tuttle v. Jewell, ___F.Supp. 3d ___, ___, 2016 WL 1048775, at *11 n.18 (D.D.C. 2016) ("It is well-established that a party may not amend a complaint through summary judgment briefing." (citing District of Columbia v. Barrie, 741 F.Supp.2d 250, 263 (D.D.C. 2010))); Council on Am.-Islamic Relations Action Network, Inc. v. Gaubatz, 31 F.Supp. 3d 237, 274 (D.D.C. 2014) (same), summary judgment must be granted in favor of the defendant officers. And the same result would be required even if the plaintiff had properly pleaded an excessive force claim under the Eighth Amendment.[6]

         "The Eighth Amendment bars the infliction of ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’" Chandler v. D.C. Dep’t of Corr., 145 F.3d 1355, 1360 (D.C. Cir. 1998) (quoting U.S. Const. amend. VIII). "The Supreme Court has recognized two categories of prisoner cases as actionable under the [Eighth] [A]mendment: complaints regarding prisoners’ conditions of confinement, and those alleging excessive use of force."[7]Id. (citations omitted). There are "subjective" and "objective" elements to these cases. See Powers-Bunce v. District of Columbia, 479 F.Supp.2d 146, 156 (D.D.C. 2007) (quoting Collins v. Seeman, 462 F.3d 757, 760-61 (7th Cir. 2006)). "Thus, courts considering a prisoner’s [Eighth Amendment] claim must ask both [(1)] if ‘the officials acted with a sufficiently culpable state of mind’ and [(2)]) if the alleged wrongdoing was objectively ‘harmful enough’ to establish a constitutional violation." Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 8 (1992) (quoting Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 298, 303 (1991)). In the context of an excessive force claim under the Eighth Amendment, "the prisoner must prove that a government official acted ‘maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm, ’ and that the consequent injury was more than de minimis." Chandler, 145 F.3d at 1360 (quoting Whitley, 475 U.S. at 320-21) (citing Hudson, 503 U.S. at 9-10); see also Wilson, 501 U.S. at 302 (a "very high state of mind" is required in cases involving government officials who "act in response to a prison disturbance" because "their actions are necessarily taken ‘in haste, under pressure, ’ and balanced against ‘competing institutional concerns for the safety of prison staff or other inmates’" (quoting Whitley, 475 U.S. at 320)). Factors to consider in making this subjective inquiry are the extent of the injuries suffered by the inmate, "the need for application of force, the relationship between that need and the amount of force used, the threat ‘reasonably perceived by the responsible officials, ’ and ‘any efforts made to temper the severity of a forceful response.’" Hudson, 503 U.S. at 7 (quoting Whitley, 475 U.S. at 321). The objective inquiry that must be made is "contextual, " id. at 8, and is satisfied where there is more than a "de minimis use[] of physical force, provided that the use of force is not of a sort ‘repugnant to the conscience of mankind, ’" id. at 10 (quoting Whitley, 475 U.S. at 327). Courts must bear in mind that the excessive force claim "ultimately turns on ‘whether force was applied in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline or [applied] maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm.’" Wh ...

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