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7th Circuit Affirms as Proper Jury Instructions on Intent and Harm Elements of Excessive Force Claim Brought by Wisconsin Pretrial Detainee

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has affirmed a lower court’s use of jury instructions including harm and subjective intent elements of a use of excessive force claim that Michael Kingsley, a state pretrial detainee, brought and needed to prove against defendant guards. The Jury at trial entered a verdict for the defendants, and the lower court dismissed the claim. On appeal, Kingsley argued that the jury instructions had improperly conflated Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment excessive force standards and misstated the harm he had to prove. On March 3, 2014, the Court of Appeals affirmed both the lower court’s jury instructions and subsequent dismissal.

During Kingsley’s incarceration at the Monroe County Jail in Wisconsin on May 20, 2010, a guard passing Kingsley’s cell noticed a piece of paper covering the ceiling light in the cell. The guard instructed Kingsley to remove the paper. Kingsley refused. After Kingsley refused further orders that day and the next morning to remove the paper, Sergeant Stan Hendrickson called Lieutenant Robert Conroy, who ordered Kingsley to remove the paper covering the light.

Following another refusal, Lt. Conroy ordered a “cell extraction.” Sgt. Hendrickson and Deputies Shisler, Blanton, Degner arrived to assist. Kingsley passively resisted orders to leave the cell, lying facedown with his hands behind his back. Hendrickson and Blanton entered the cell and handcuffed Kingsley, then pulled him from the bed, causing his feet to slam against the bedframe. Kingsley alleged that this caused him severe pain that prevented him from standing. He was then carried to his new cell and placed facedown on the bunk.

Upon entering the new cell, Hendrickson pressed his knee into Kingsley’s back, and Kingsley claimed that the defendants had smashed his head into the concrete bunk. Degner subsequently used a taser or Kingsley for five seconds. The guards left and fifteen minutes later they returned and removed the handcuffs. Kingsley refused medical attention.

Kingsley filed suit against the guards in December 2010 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, alleging violations of his due process rights, excessive force, and assault and battery. Apparently, on a motion for summary judgment by the defendants, the district court granted the motion, dismissing the claims except for the excessive force claim against Hendrickson and Degner. The case proceeded to trial on the claim, and the jury returned a verdict for the defendants.

Kingsley appealed, arguing that the district court had given erroneous jury instructions that conflated the Eighth and fourteenth Amendment standards on excessive force, requiring him to prove that the guards has acted recklessly concerning his safety rather than to demonstrate from a completely objective perspective that the guards’ actions had been intended to punish. Kingsley also claimed that the jury had been improperly instructed that Kingsley must further prove harm, or if he must prove harm, it had been improper and confusing to instruct the jury that “[a] person can be harmed even if he did not suffer a severe injury.” Kingsley additionally alleged that the use of the taser had met the required harm as a matter of law.

According to the federal law, the Eighth Amendment applies to convicted individuals in prison, which allows punishment, and the Fourteenth Amendment applies to pretrial detainees, which does not allow punishment. Although Eight Amendment standards are often applied to detainees, and it had not been established how much more protection the Fourteenth Amendment affords, the court of appeals specifically considered whether the jury instructions adhered to Fourteenth Amendment standards.

The court focused on the jury instructions’ use of recklessness — namely that Kingsley had to prove that” [the defendants] recklessly disregarded plaintiff’s safety” and that the jury “may consider” certain factors in determining if any defendants “acted with reckless disregard of plaintiff’s rights.” The court of appeals held that since recklessness was a requirement to prove excessive force, a showing of subjective intent “measured largely by” objective criteria rather than a completely objective perspective was necessary under the Fourteenth Amendment.

 As to Kingsley’s arguments of harm, the court of appeals determined that his claims that he should have had to prove harm or, in the alternative, that the use of the taser constituted harm, were waived because he had not argued them at trial. The court additionally found that Kingsley’s objection on harm not needing to be severe to be proved had also been waived but the instruction had not confused the jury that a certain level of injury had been necessary to establish harm, especially since Kingsley’s counsel had been permitted to argue that pain fulfilled harm.

The court of appeals concluded that the jury instructions had not been erroneous nor confusing and therefore affirmed the district court’s judgment.

See: Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 744 F.3d 443 (7th Cir. 2014).

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