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Claim Alleging Guard Slammed Prisoner’s Head into Wall Defeats Summary Judgment

Claim Alleging Guard Slammed Prisoner’s Head into Wall Defeats Summary Judgment

by David Reutter

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a grant of summary judgment in a prisoner’s civil rights action, holding that a reasonable jury could conclude a guard had “inflicted serious pain” on the prisoner “with malicious and sadistic intent.” The Court further held a reasonable official would have known his conduct was unconstitutional under the particular factual circumstances alleged in the case.

Phillip Cordell was housed at the Greene County Jail in Xenia, Ohio awaiting transfer to prison after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter. In the late afternoon of July 20, 2009, Cordell and other prisoners requested haircuts from guard Glen McKinney as he was making his rounds on the second floor.

McKinney reportedly replied with a vulgarity, which he disputed, but it was undisputed that Cordell responded with his own vulgar, derogatory statement. “This outburst did not sit well with [McKinney],” the Sixth Circuit wrote.

McKinney ordered Cordell into the vestibule area to place him in handcuffs for escort to a holding cell on the third floor. Cordell claimed he was compliant; McKinney contended he was aggressive and resistant, forcing him to display his Taser and call for back up. When other guards arrived, McKinney put Cordell in handcuffs to take him to the holding cell.

Cordell was placed in an escort position, which he said is “[W]hen your hands are behind your back and somebody tries to raise them laterally up towards your shoulders, it’s a submission [-style hold].” According to video footage, when on the third floor, Cordell was marched “faster and faster” as McKinney raised Cordell’s arms above his back.

The Court of Appeals said the video showed “Cordell’s torso [was] relatively upright.” Thirty seconds later, McKinney started to raise Cordell’s arms. After another thirty seconds, “it appears that Cordell’s torso has started to fall forward.” In the next frame they go off camera.

It was at that point that McKinney rammed him headfirst into a wall, Cordell claimed. A nurse who was with the guards escorting Cordell examined him, and as they moved on she was seen on the video pointing to fresh blood on the wall.

Once at the holding cell, McKinney and Cordell had a “heated discussion.” McKinney failed to respond to a sergeant’s order to stop arguing, and was removed from the scene. Cordell was subsequently taken to a hospital to receive five stitches for a laceration on his head; he was also diagnosed with “whiplash.” McKinney received “a written [warning] for excessive use of force” from the Sheriff’s Department as a result of the incident.

Cordell filed suit on July 1, 2011. The federal district court granted summary judgment to McKinney, and Cordell appealed. The Sixth Circuit held the district court had erred in finding that Cordell failed to demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact in dispute, and that it had “improperly weighed the evidence in the record.”

The Sixth Circuit decided on July 16, 2014 that at this stage of the litigation it must accept as true Cordell’s deposition testimony that McKinney drove him headfirst into a concrete wall. It also held the law was clearly established at the time that such conduct violates the Eighth Amendment. As such, the district court’s summary judgment order was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings. Cordell was represented by the Ohio Justice & Policy Center. See: Cordell v. McKinney, 759 F.3d 573 (6th Cir. 2014).


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Related legal case

Cordell v. McKinney