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Summary Judgment for Jail Guard Upheld; Punch, Injury De Minimis

The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court's grant of
summary judgment to a jail guard in a case where a prisoner claimed he had
been punched by the guard.

Luis Reyes was housed in the Behavioral Adjustment Unit (BAU) of the Berks
County Jail in Pennsylvania. In the BAU, Reyes, who had previously struck a
guard in an escape attempt, was locked down 23 hours a day, was required to
exercise alone, was strip-searched and cell-searched for weapons daily, and
was handcuffed from behind every time he was moved out of his cell.
Reyes claimed that during a cell and strip-search, guard John Chinnici
stated that if Reyes spit on him, Reyes was going down." Reyes, outside of
his cell and handcuffed, pursed his lips as if to spit on Chinnici.

Chinnici then hit Reyes. Reyes claims he was hit hard by Chinnici's closed
fist. Chinnici and guards Jason Bao and Edwin Cordero, who were present at
the incident, claim Chinnici used his open palm. Reyes was struck on the
right shoulder and neck, did not spit on Chinnici, and was returned to his
cell without incident. His shoulder swelled and was sore for a few days. A
nurse gave him medication for the injury.

Reyes sued Chinnici under 42 U.S.C. §1983 claiming his constitutional
rights were violated by Chinnici's excessive use of force. The district
court granted summary judgment for Chinnici and Reyes appealed.
The Court of Appeals held that Chinnici's use of force was an
"understandable reaction" to Reyes' perceived attempt to spit on Chinniei
after having been warned not to do so. Citing Brooks v. Kyler, 204 F.3d 102
(3rd Cir. 2000), the appellate court held that some force was needed to
stop Reyes from spitting, that Chinnici used no more force than was
necessary to stop Chinnici, that Reyes' injury was de minimis, that
Chinnici perceived a threat provoked by Reyes, and that as soon as Reyes
was thwarted from spitting he was returned to his cell without incident.
Reyes argued that each of the guards admitted that punching a handcuffed
prisoner was inappropriate. The appeals court held that, appropriate or
not, a de minimis use of force was not a constitutional violation because
it is not "repugnant to the conscience of mankind." Further, Chinnici owed
Reyes no duty to let himself be spit upon.

Reyes argued that the Third Circuit had previously held that "while the
extent of injuries can be considered in evaluating the force used, the
appropriateness of that force is a factual question for a jury to decide,"
citing Smith v. Mensinger, 293 F.3d 641 (3rd Cir. 2002). The appeals court,
though, distinguished Smith on its facts.

In Smith, the prisoner suffered a prolonged, violent, unwarranted beating
by several guards. The district court granted summary judgment to prison
officials on grounds that Smith's injuries were not severe. In contrast,
Reyes provoked Chinnici to punch him, and Chinnici punched him once. Reyes
had only a de minimis injury. Smith, therefore, was inapplicable to Reyes'
complaint. Chinnici did not act maliciously and sadistically and did not
violate Reyes' rights.

The district court's grant of summary judgment was affirmed. This case is
published in the Federal Appendix and is subject to rules governing
unpublished cases. See: Reyes v. Chinnici, 54 Fed.Appx. 44 (3rd Cir. 2002).

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Related legal case

Reyes v. Chinnici

[U] Reyes v. Chinnici, 54 Fed.Appx. 44 (3d Cir. 11/18/2002)


[2] No. 01-2142

[3] 54 Fed.Appx. 44, 2002

[4] November 18, 2002


[6] On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania District Court Judge: The Honorable R. Barclay Surrick (D.C. Civ. No. 98-cv-6615)

[7] Before: Sloviter, Fuentes, and DEBEVOISE*fn1, Circuit Judges

[8] The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fuentes, Circuit Judge


[10] Argued on October 29, 2002


[12] Luis Reyes ("Reyes") appeals an order of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granting summary judgment, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), to Defendant Corrections Officer John Chinnici ("Chinnici"). Reyes contends that the District Court improperly granted summary judgment on his claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by focusing on his de minimis injuries and failing to permit a jury to decide the matter. Because we agree that no reasonable jury could find for Reyes based on the facts of this case, we affirm the Order of the District Court.

[13] I. Facts and Procedural History

[14] Because we write solely for the parties, our review of the factual background is limited to that which is necessary to inform our opinion today. At the time of the incident at issue, Reyes was a prisoner in the Behavioral Adjustment Unit ("BAU") in the disciplinary block of the Berks County Jail, the most restricted unit in the jail. Prisoners in the BAU spend 23 hours a day in single occupancy cells and exercise for one hour a day in the prison yard. For the safety of corrections officers and prisoners, BAU prisoners are handcuffed from behind whenever corrections officers move them outside of their cells.

[15] In addition to being housed in the BAU, Reyes was classified as "security status" because he and his brother, another prisoner in the jail, had assaulted a corrections officer as part of an escape attempt. Due to his security status, prison officials required Reyes to exercise alone and prevented him from having any "sharps," including pens. In addition, two corrections officers accompanied Reyes whenever he went out of his cell, and corrections officers searched his cell daily for weapons. On the day of the incident at issue, Chinnici and Corrections Officers Jason Bao ("Bao") and Edwin Cordero ("Cordero") conducted a search of Reyes' cell. Cordero performed a strip search of Reyes in a shower stall, while Bao and Chinnici checked his cell.

[16] After the search, the corrections officers accompanied Reyes back to his cell. For reasons that remain disputed, Chinnici previously had told Reyes that, if Reyes spit on him, he was "going down." Upon arrival at his cell, Reyes turned toward Chinnici and pursed his lips as if to spit on him. In response, Chinnici struck Reyes' right shoulder. Reyes claims that Chinnici punched him, while Chinnici and Bao claim that Chinnici made contact with an open hand. Reyes never actually spit on Chinnici.

[17] After the incident, Cordero grabbed Reyes and put him back in his cell. Reyes' shoulder swelled as a result of the blow. He requested medical attention and saw the prison nurse. The nurse looked at his shoulder, told him it would be sore for a few days, and gave him two pills to take.

[18] Reyes later commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging the Chinnici used excessive force against him in violation of his constitutional rights. On April 12, 2001, the District Court granted summary judgment to Chinnici, concluding that he did not violate Reyes' Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

[19] II. Jurisdiction and Standard of Review

[20] The District Court exercised jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1343. We exercise jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 over a final decision of a district court.

[21] We exercise plenary review over a district court's grant of summary judgment and review the facts in the light most favorable to the party against whom summary judgment was entered. See Brooks v. Kyler, 204 F.3d 102, 105 n.5 (3d Cir. 2000). Summary judgment is proper if there is no genuine issue of material fact and if, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986). At the summary judgment stage, the judge's function is not to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986).

[22] III. Discussion

[23] Reyes alleges that he was deprived of his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment when Chinnici, acting under color of state law, punched him on the shoulder and neck area while he was handcuffed. He claims that the District Court improperly imposed its own judgment regarding the merits of his case, rather than allowing a jury to decide the issues. He argues that the District Court erred in two respects. First, Reyes claims the District Court erred in ruling that Chinnici's punch was an "understandable reaction" to Reyes' conduct. Second, Reyes claims that the District Court erred in focusing on the injury he suffered and by concluding that the injury was so "minor and temporary" that Chinnici could not have acted maliciously and sadistically.

[24] A. "Understandable Reaction"

[25] "In an excessive force claim, the central question is 'whether force was applied in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm.'" Brooks, 204 F.3d at 106 (quoting Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 7 (1992)). Courts looks to several factors in making this determination including: "(1) the need for the application of force; (2) the relationship between the need and the amount of force that was used; (3) the extent of the injury inflicted; (4) the extent of the threat to the safety of staff and inmates, as reasonably perceived by responsible officials on the basis of the facts known to them; and (5) any efforts made to temper the severity of the response." Id. (quoting Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 321 (1986)).