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Eighth Circuit: Denial of Nominal Damages Jury Instruction was Improper

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held on September 4, 2012 that a district court erred when it refused to give a nominal damages jury instruction in a lawsuit brought by a Missouri state prisoner. Another trial was held in June 2013 following remand, and the jury again ruled in favor of the defendant prison officials.

Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC) policy allows a prisoner to declare his cellmate an “enemy” and be removed from the cell if he fears for his safety. The prisoner is then placed on a restraint bench until a compatible cellmate is found, a single-person cell becomes available or the prisoner elects to return to the original cell. While on the restraint bench, bathroom breaks and small amounts of water are allowed but food is not provided per DOC policy.

Arthur E. Taylor, Jr., was confined at the maximum-security Jefferson County Correctional Center when he declared his cellmate an enemy and was removed from the cell on September 9, 2005.

Taylor was shackled to a metal restraint bench, where he remained until he was placed in a cell with a new cellmate on September 11. He was unable to sleep during the two days he was shackled to the restraint bench in an upright position. Therefore, once in the new cell, he slept through breakfast and lunch.

Later that day, Taylor declared his new cellmate an enemy and was returned to the bench. This time he remained on the restraint bench until the evening of September 14, 2005.

Again, pursuant to policy, Taylor was not fed while on the bench. He first ate again on the morning of September 15, 2005 after missing about twelve meals.

Taylor filed suit in federal court, alleging that the failure of prison officials to provide him with food violated the Eighth Amendment. The case proceeded to trial and the district court gave Taylor’s requested excessive force jury instruction but refused to give his nominal damages instruction. The jury returned a verdict for the defendants, finding zero damages for Taylor.

The Eighth Circuit reversed, holding that “the district court abused its discretion in not submitting the requested nominal damages instruction to the jury.”

The appellate court rejected the defendants’ argument that the error was harmless, finding that “if the jury analyzed this element first and found no damages, it could not find excessive force.” As such, “the lack of a nominal damages instruction had a probable effect on this verdict.” Justice Kermit E. Bye issued a separate opinion that concurred in part and dissented in part. See: Taylor v. Dormire, 690 F.3d 898 (8th Cir. 2012).

Following remand, on May 14, 2013 the district court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment in part and granted it in part, and denied Taylor’s motion to amend his complaint to add a new defendant. See: Taylor v. Dormire, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 68062 (W.D. Mo. 2013).

The case went to another jury trial in June 2013, and the jury found in favor of the defendants on all counts. The district court denied Taylor’s motion for a new trial and he filed an appeal, which remains pending. The Missouri DOC has since revised its policy related to feeding prisoners while they are on a restraint bench.

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