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Eighth Circuit: No Qualified Immunity for Excessive Use of Force, Retaliation

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a district court’s denial of qualified immunity on a prisoner’s retaliation and excessive force claims.

On July 26, 2008, Missouri prisoner Victor Santiago faced administrative segregation for failing to report to his work assignment at the Potosi Correctional Center. When he allegedly became combative, several guards pepper sprayed and handcuffed him, then slammed him into a wall and the floor. A guard “tightened the handcuffs to the ‘crushing point.’” When Santiago claimed his wrist was broken, a nurse allegedly said “it don’t look broke to me,” and walked away. He was not allowed to wash off the pepper spray for about 35 minutes.

After Santiago filed an excessive force grievance, guard Shannon Clubbs and Lieutenant Daniel Blair allegedly retaliated against him and attempted to chill his use of the grievance process by making death threats and moving him to a cell with worse living conditions, including no personal property, bedding or running water, and a non-working toilet.

Santiago filed suit in federal court in 2009, alleging excessive force, deliberate indifference and retaliation. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants on Santiago’s official capacity claims but not his individual capacity claims.On appeal, the Eighth Circuit first held that the district court had improperly applied the Fourth Amendment legal standard when resolving Santiago’s excessive force claim. It remanded for analysis of that claim under the Eighth Amendment standard articulated in Johnson v. Bi-State Justice Center/Arkansas Department of Corrections, 12 F.3d 133 (8th Cir. 1993).

The Court of Appeals then held that Clubbs was not entitled to qualified immunity on Santiago’s claim of retaliatory death threats, finding that “a reasonable jury could conclude that Clubbs issued the death threats because Santiago had filed and pursued his excessive force grievance.”

Likewise, the appellate court found that Lt. Blair was not entitled to qualified immunity on the retaliation claims. “Taken in the light most favorable to Santiago, a reasonable jury could conclude that [the] facts demonstrate that Blair took the ... adverse actions because of Santiago’s continued use of the prison grievance procedure,” the Eighth Circuit wrote, noting that “The right to be free from retaliation for availing one’s self of the prison grievance process has been clearly established in this circuit for more than twenty years.”

Turning to Santiago’s retaliatory discipline claim against Clubbs, the Court of Appeals held that it was “undisputed that Clubbs filed a [disciplinary] report detailing Santiago’s alleged assault and that Santiago was brought before a disciplinary action board for a hearing at which he was found guilty of assault.” The Eighth Circuit noted that “claims of retaliation fail if the alleged retaliatory conduct violations were issued for the actual violation of a prison rule,” citing Hartsfield v. Nichols, 511 F.3d 826 (8th Cir. 2008). As such, Santiago’s retaliatory discipline claim “fails as a matter of law and Clubbs is entitled to qualified immunity” on that claim.

Finally, the Court of Appeals found that Captain Garry Branch was entitled to qualified immunity on Santiago’s deliberate indifference claim because there was no evidence he had deliberately disregarded Santiago’s medical needs with respect to his injured wrist. See: Santiago v. Blair, 707 F.3d 984 (8th Cir. 2013).

Following remand, the district court appointed counsel to represent Santiago; this case remains pending with a jury trial scheduled for July 28, 2014.

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