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Fourth Circuit Upholds Denial of Summary Judgment to Guards in Excessive Force Suit

In a May 19, 2015 decision, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court’s denial of summary judgment to prison guards in a lawsuit claiming excessive use of force during a cell extraction.

Sammy Ussery, a North Carolina state prisoner, was injured during a cell extraction at the Bertie Correctional Institution. He filed a federal civil rights action alleging excessive use of force against guards James Dunlow, Timothy Ruffin and Sgt. Mansfield. After the suit survived initial screening, Ussery was represented by David A. Strauss with North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services. The guards filed a motion for summary judgment alleging Ussery’s injuries were minimal and thus they should be granted qualified immunity. The district court denied their motion and the guards filed an interlocutory appeal.

Ussery argued the incident had been sparked by “an antagonistic relationship” with Sgt. Mansfield, which had resulted in his cell being “tossed” many times in the days immediately prior to the cell extraction. He claimed this harassment was racially-based and continued despite no contraband having been found, and that was what made him refuse to leave his cell.

Prior to the extraction, Sgt. Mansfield told the extraction team that Ussery had a weapon and threatened to use it on anyone who entered his cell. Ussery denied making that threat or possessing a weapon, and no weapon was found. During the cell extraction, Ussery was pepper sprayed, beaten on the head with batons and fists, and kicked and stomped in the chest, neck, face and head. This resulted in loss of vision in his right eye, loss of hearing, neck pain, recurring migraines, chronic swelling and loss of feeling in his hands and knees. A video recording was made of the cell extraction; however, Sgt. Mansfield was obstructing the camera during most of the recording.

The Department of Corrections asked the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) to conduct a review of the guards’ use of force during the cell extraction. The SBI called Sgt. Mansfield’s obstruction of the video “disturbing,” and said it “precluded [the state] from investigating the matter fully.”

To support their claim of minimal injury, the prison guards relied on an affidavit from a long-time DOC doctor who had never examined Ussery but only reviewed his medical records. Ussery opposed the motion using the results of the SBI investigation, the cell extraction video (which did show he was injured when removed from the cell), his medical records, and prisoners’ and guards’ statements to prove his injuries. The Fourth Circuit held that such evidence was sufficient to establish more than de minimis injury, and affirmed the district court’s denial of summary judgment. See: Ussery v. Mansfield, 786 F.3d 332 (4th Cir. 2015).

Following remand, the case settled in October 2015. The DOC paid Ussery $1,600 in damages plus $347 “for his remaining filing fee” in the case. Additionally, the state agreed to “forgive or discharge the [prison] trust fund debt owed” by Ussery, in the amount of $1,427.92. Lastly, the settlement agreement specified that Ussery will “have an audiology consultation at Central Prison with an audiology specialist from the University of North Carolina,” and that he will be allowed to order “a single pair of headphones ... which are permissible for other hearing-impaired inmates to possess.” See: Ussery v. Mansfield, U.S.D.C. (E.D. NC), Case No. 5:11-cv-03124-BO. 

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Related legal cases

Ussery v. Mansfield,

Ussery v. Mansfield