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Sixth Circuit: Disciplinary Conviction Does Not Bar Excessive Force Claim

Prisoners who claim they were assaulted by guards in violation of the Eighth Amendment are not barred from challenging such abuse in court even if they were found guilty of disciplinary charges in connection with the incident, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has held. Moreover, it is erroneous for a district court to rely on a guard’s written account of the incident when videotape evidence is readily available.

In overturning a grant of summary judgment in favor of a prison guard, the Court of Appeals ruled that the guard’s alleged act of slamming a handcuffed prisoner into a wall and then to the floor was an event legally distinct from the prisoner’s alleged assault on the guard moments earlier. Prison guards who use excessive force after subduing prisoners are not immunized from court oversight as a result of disciplinary infractions against the prisoner, the Sixth Circuit wrote.

Michigan state prisoner Toran V. Peterson filed suit in federal court, claiming that a prison guard identified only as “Jones” had, without provocation, pushed up on his handcuffed arms to “slam” him into a wall, then lifted him three feet off the ground to slam him to the floor. Peterson was not seriously injured but filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 complaint, alleging cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment among other claims.

Jones, represented by the state, had claimed that Peterson – who was handcuffed behind his back at the time – had disobeyed an order to proceed to his cell, so he “placed” Peterson against the wall and then onto the floor “to gain control of him.” Jones moved for summary judgment on the basis that Peterson had been found guilty of assaulting him in a disciplinary proceeding in connection with the incident. The district court agreed and granted summary judgment in favor of Jones, using the disciplinary conviction as the basis for the court’s factual findings and rejecting Peterson’s request that the state be ordered to produce videotape of the incident, which had been preserved for the disciplinary hearing.

The Court of Appeals reversed on Peterson’s Eighth Amendment claim, applying de novo review as to the objective and subjective tests applicable to excessive force cases. The objective component of the test requires that the pain inflicted be “sufficiently serious,” as defined by Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294 (1991) [PLN, Sept. 1991, p.5], but “the seriousness of the injuries is not dispositive.” Here, notwithstanding Peterson’s lack of serious injuries, the district court concluded that Peterson “may be able to satisfy the objective component” of the test. However, he could not meet the subjective component because his disciplinary conviction meant there was no genuine issue of material fact as to the subjective question of whether “force was applied in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline or maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm.”

This was error, the Sixth Circuit found. First, Peterson claimed in his complaint that he did not resist Jones, which in itself created a genuine issue of material fact. Second, contrary to the district court’s ruling, the law is clear that the outcome of a disciplinary hearing does not necessarily define whether an excessive force claim exists. “The question here is not whether Peterson resisted or assaulted Jones ... the question is whether the amount of force Jones used on Peterson was excessive in light of Peterson’s conduct.” See: Lockett v. Suardini, 526 F.3d 866 (6th Cir. 2008); Huey v. Stine, 230 F.3d 226 (6th Cir. 2000).

Thus, even if it were true that Peterson had resisted or assaulted Jones, it cannot be said that a reasonable juror would necessarily find Jones’ use of force justified; in short, Peterson’s disciplinary conviction for assaulting Jones did not automatically justify the extent of the force used against Peterson.

In rejecting Jones’ claim that videotape evidence of the alleged assault would create a “security risk,” the Court of Appeals took the district court to task for simply accepting the disciplinary hearing officer’s account of the incident as the basis for the court’s factual findings in the case. The Sixth Circuit noted that “the legal significance of the videotape is readily apparent” to show how much force had been used against Peterson.

The case was remanded for further proceedings, where it remains pending before the district court. See: Peterson v. Jones, Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Case No. 11-1551 (Feb. 24, 2012) (unpublished).

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Related legal cases

Peterson v. Jones, Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals

Lockett v. Suardini

Huey v. Stine