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Eighth Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment Dismissal of Excessive Force Claims

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court?s grant of summary judgment to jail officials on a detainee?s excessive force claim.

Patti Johnson and her sisters Laura Johnson, Stacey Hall and Karen Mitchell were all confined in the Jasper County Detention Center in Missouri, on June 13, 2003. Upon receiving complaints that the sisters were bullying other detainees, guards placed them on lockdown.

Guard Matt Terry announced the lockdown order. The sisters were upset and initially didn?t comply, but then re-entered their cell. Once in the cell, Laura banged a shampoo bottle on the desk and threw toilet paper at the wall.

Several guards entered the cell and moved toward Laura, who was at the back of the cell. Patti ?stepped in front of Sergeant Blaukat and asked him not to touch her sister, assuring him that the cellmates would be able to calm her down. Sergeant Blaukat told Johnson to move but she did not.? Terry tackled Patti, took her to the floor and attempted to handcuff her. ?He was able to cuff one of her hands and struggled to get the other one?. Johnson tried to produce her other hand for cuffing but it was caught underneath her. She could not pull the hand out because? guards Terry, Denita Douglas and Melissa Roughton ?had piled on top of her.?

Patti said he hand was stuck but ?Terry placed an Orcutt Police Nonchaku (OPN)? ? a nunchuck-like device ? ?around her neck and chocked her, twisting the device until it broke.? Patti?s head was slammed into the floor, her hair was pulled and Douglas sprayed mace on her face and eyes. She sustained bruises and lacerations on her arms, a broken thumb and two black eyes.

Patti and her sisters brought suit in federal court, alleging excessive force, deliberate indifference, and retaliation. All but Patti?s excessive force claim were voluntarily dismissed. The district court granted Defendant?s summary judgment on the excessive force claim.

The Eighth Circuit agreed with Patti that the district court erred in resolving disputed issues of material fact in favor of the moving party. ?Instead of viewing the contested facts in favor of Johnson, the district court drew inferences in favor of Terry and Douglas, finding that their actions were done in ?good faith? and were ?quite limited.??

Summary judgment was not proper because ?in this record there are several material questions of fact about whether Officers Terry and Douglas used excessive force,? and concerning Patti?s Hudson v. McMillian, 503 US 1 (1992) and Treats v. Morgan, 308 F.3d 868 (8th Cir. 2002) ?could be weighed by a trier of fact in favor of Johnson or the officers, and a jury could find that force was applied to Johnson maliciously and sadistically.?

The court noted that there was no evidence of force being used by guards other than Terry and Douglas, so summary judgment to the remaining defendant?s was proper. The court also found that summary judgment was appropriate on Johnson?s Monell claim against the county. See: Johnson v. Blaukat, 453 F.3d 1108 (8th Cir. 2006).

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Related legal case

Johnson v. Blaukat