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Qualified Immunity Holds for Inmate Assault

Deborah Elkins//August 23, 2013

Qualified Immunity Holds for Inmate Assault

Deborah Elkins//August 23, 2013

A correctional officer who allegedly assaulted a restrained inmate who was changing cells has qualified immunity from the inmate’s suit alleging excessive force, the 4th Circuit says; although the law changed in 2010, the governing standard for an excessive force claim in 2007 applies and medical records showed no more than a de minimis injury to plaintiff.

While plaintiff’s case was pending on appeal to this court, the Supreme Court decided Wilkins v. Gaddy, 559 U.S. 34 (2010), holding there is no de minimis injury threshold for an excessive force claim, specifically rejecting the 4th Circuit’s approach in Norman v. Taylor, 25 F.3d 1259 (4th Cir. 1994). This court vacated dismissal of plaintiff’s claim and remanded the case to the district court.

On remand, defendant officer moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. The district court denied qualified immunity, the case went to trial and a jury awarded plaintiff $25,000 in damages. The district court set aside the award, and said awarding that amount for “a bruised rib and an impermanent headaches” shocked the conscience. The district court granted a new trial but denied defendant’s Rule 50(b) motion for judgment as a matter of law on the qualified immunity issue. Defendant appealed denial of the Rule 50(b) motion.

Under our prior precedent, we have consistently applied the rule that a plaintiff cannot prevail on an excessive force claim if his injuries were de minimis, until the Wilkins decision in 2010. The Wilkins court clarified that the nature of the force, rather than the extent of the injury, is the relevant inquiry.

The question now is whether the officer’s alleged conduct, which took place prior to the Wilkins decision, is covered by qualified immunity. Although Wilkins abrogated Norman in 2010, Wilkins can only be applied prospectively in the context of a qualified immunity analysis. The applicable law for qualified immunity purposes would be that in existence in 2007, the time of the alleged assault.

Here, the officer’s conduct was no more egregious than the conduct of other officers in a multitude of cases in which those officers were found not to have used excessive force under the iiiNormaniii rule, including the Wilkins decision through our court. The similarity of these cases to the case at bar demonstrates that, under the law of our circuit prior to Wilkins, defendant’s conduct would have been settled by the Norman analysis. Plaintiff’s medical records do not indicate any complaints of injuries stemming from the assault. Defendant’s alleged conduct, which is undoubtedly reprehensible, nevertheless is more akin to brute force, rather than humiliation, degradation or torture as we have described “extraordinary circumstances” in other cases.

The right defendant sues upon was not clearly established in the 4th Circuit at the time of the alleged assault. Defendant is entitled to qualified immunity.

Reversed and remanded.


Thacker, J.: Under prevailing Supreme Court precedent available at the time of the assault in this case, it was clearly established that an officer could not maliciously or sadistically impose harm on a custodial, handcuffed and completely non-resistant inmate without violating the inmate’s Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment – and any reasonable officer would have known as much.

I would hold defendant is not entitled to qualified immunity and affirm the district court.

Hill v. Crum (Agee) No. 12-6705, Aug. 14, 2013; USDC at Roanoke, Va. (Turk) James J. O’Keeffe for appellant; Arlene Sokolowski for appellee. VLW 013-2-171, 39 pp.

VLW 013-2-171

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