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Seventh Circuit Retires “De Minimis” Standard for Use of Physical Force

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a district court’s application of a “de minimis harm” standard in dismissing a Wisconsin detainee’s claim that he was sexually groped.

In April 2008, James Washington, Jr. was a pretrial detainee at a Wisconsin jail when a guard, John P. Hively, allegedly fondled his “testicles and penis through [his] clothing” during a pat down, “then while strip searching him fondled his nude testicles for two or three seconds.” Washington filed a federal lawsuit against Hively, who denied the allegations.

The district court granted Hively’s motion for summary judgment. The court correctly recognized that it could not resolve the factual disputes on summary judgment. However, even presuming “that the defendant grabbed the plaintiff’s genitals in a way that was not related to penological interests,” the district court found Hively was entitled to summary judgment because Washington “presented evidence of only de minimis injury” and had “suffered at most an assault and battery.”

Washington appealed and the Seventh Circuit reversed, finding that “the judge’s references to ‘de minimis injury’ and ‘assault and battery’ inappropriately invoked excessive force cases,” which hold “that ‘de minimis uses of force are non-actionable.’”

The Court of Appeals found that “an unwanted touching of a person’s private parts, intended to humiliate the victim or gratify the assailant’s sexual desires, can violate a prisoner’s constitutional rights whether or not the ‘force’ exerted by the assailant is significant.”

As such, the appellate court held “it is therefore time that the formula of ‘de minimis uses of physical force’ was retired, as we suggested recently in Guitron v. Paul, 675 F.3d 1044, 1046 (7th Cir. 2012).”

In Guitron, the court wrote that “Custodians must be able to handle, sometimes manhandle, their charges, if a building crammed with disgruntled people who disdain authority (that’s how the prisoners came to be there, after all) is to be manageable. When a physical injury occurs as the result of force applied in the course of prison operations, as happened to Guitron, the courts should approach the matter as Whitley [v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 106 S. Ct. 1078 (1986)] and Hudson v. McMillian [503 U.S. 1, 112 S. Ct. 995 (1992)] direct, rather than trying to classify injuries as de minimis.”

In Washington’s case, the Seventh Circuit observed that “Sexual offenses forcible or not are unlikely to cause so little harm as to be adjudged de minimis, that is, too trivial to justify the provision of a legal remedy. They tend rather to cause significant distress and often lasting psychological harm.”

While the Court of Appeals noted that Washington could not obtain compensatory damages if he proved his claim against Hively due to 42 U.S.C. § 1997e, as he had not suffered a physical injury, nominal and punitive damages remained available to him. See: Washington v. Hively, 695 F.3d 641 (7th Cir. 2012).

Washington’s lawsuit remains pending before the district court on remand.

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Related legal case

Washington v. Hively