by Christopher Zoukis
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals released an important decision concerning the rights of pretrial detainees on November 7, 2016.
The case involved allegations of unconstitutional conduct by authorities at the New Hanover County Detention Facility in North Carolina. The plaintiff, Michael Anthony Dilworth, claimed that he was subjected to excessive force and denial of his right to due process while held at the facility.
The violations allegedly occurred as a result of two altercations involving Dilworth. The first was a fight between Dilworth and another prisoner. After the fight, guard Charles Thomas issued an “Inmate Disciplinary Report” that stated he had taken the “disciplinary action” of placing Dilworth in segregation for 45 days. The watch commander on duty, Lieutenant Robert Johnson, later approved that penalty. Dilworth unsuccessfully appealed the sanction; at no time was he afforded a hearing.
The second incident occurred following Dilworth’s release from segregation. How the incident began was disputed, but Dilworth was physically assaulted by guards B.M. Cookson and A. Trott, who threw “multiple knee spears to his legs and multiple punches to his head” and took him to the floor. Dilworth was again placed in disciplinary segregation for 45 days, and Johnson again signed off on the punishment. Dilworth’s appeal was denied by administrative review officer A.R. Fales, Jr., who stated, “I am NOT required to recommend a disciplinary hearing if grounds for such do not exist.”
Dilworth sued numerous defendants, including New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon, Fales, Lt. Johnson and several guards. The district court entered summary judgment in favor of the defendants, finding that Dilworth’s due process rights were protected by his post-disciplinary right to appeal. The court further held that viewed subjectively, the guards had acted in good faith and without a culpable state of mind, precluding an excessive force claim.
The Fourth Circuit reversed both of those findings. The appellate court made it clear that pretrial detainees may not be placed in segregation without notice of the alleged disciplinary violation, a hearing and a written statement describing the reasons for the disciplinary action taken. The Court of Appeals reasoned that the right to appeal a disciplinary decision is insufficient, as due process must be provided before the deprivation of a liberty interest, not after. As it was undisputed that Dilworth did not receive due process, the Court reversed and directed entry of judgment in his favor, with damages to be determined on remand.
The Fourth Circuit further held that the wrong standard had been applied in Dilworth’s excessive force claim. As the U.S. Supreme Court recently held in Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 135 S.Ct. 2466 (2015) [PLN, July 2015, p.60], “The appropriate standard for a pretrial detainee’s excessive force claim is solely an objective one.” Because the district court based its ruling on the guards’ subjective state of mind, reversal with instructions to use the correct standard was required.
The case settled following remand, on March 31, 2017, for $35,000. See: Dilworth v. Adams, 841 F.3d 246 (4th Cir. 2016).
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Related legal case
Dilworth v. Adams
|841 F.3d 246 (4th Cir. 2016)
|Court of Appeals
|Appeals Court Edition