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Denial of Summary Judgment Upheld in Prisoner’s Retaliation, Excessive Force Suit

by Matt Clarke

On July 29, 2015, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a federal district court’s denial of summary judgment to two U.S. Marshals who allegedly arranged to have a prisoner beaten at an Arkansas jail.

James Clayton Solomon was convicted of violating the terms of his federal supervised release and agreed to voluntarily surrender, but instead absconded. Before he fled, Solomon sent a letter to the federal court stating his hope that Chief Judge Jimm Larry Hendren of the Western District of Arkansas “dies a slow and painful death.”

Solomon was apprehended in California and transported to a federal facility in Oklahoma. U.S. Marshal Susan Jones and a contract guard transported him back to Fort Smith, Arkansas. During the trip, Jones showed Solomon a copy of his correspondence and informed him “he’d pay for writing that type of letter to the judge.”

As he was being transported from Fort Smith, the Marshals allegedly told him that he “should never have written that letter to the judge and they were going to make sure [he] was punished for that letter.” They also reportedly said he was being sent to the Benton County Criminal Detention Center (BCCDC), and it “was like going to hell [because] they were known for their abusive handling practices,” and he would get “special treatment” there because “they’d make sure of it.” During the transfer, Solomon accused Marshal Cory Thomas of hitting him in the stomach, making his knee buckle and causing injuries that required medical treatment.

A few days later at the BCCDC, Solomon was allegedly handcuffed in the middle of the night and carried from his cell to another location where he was given a “blanket party” by the guards. That term refers to beating a prisoner who has been covered by a blanket so he cannot identify his assailants. While he was being assaulted, deputies allegedly told him “that’s one for the Marshals,” or words to that effect.

Solomon filed a federal civil rights complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Bivens, naming both known and unknown BCCDC personnel and U.S. Marshals Jones and Thomas as defendants. He alleged retaliation, conspiracy and excessive use of force claims. After various proceedings, Jones and Thomas filed an interlocutory appeal of the district court’s denial of their motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. The Eighth Circuit remanded in 2012, directing the lower court to consider in greater detail the defendants’ qualified immunity defenses. See: Solomon v. Petray, 699 F.3d 1034 (8th Cir. 2012).

Following remand the district court granted in part and denied in part renewed motions for summary judgment filed by Thomas and Jones, again finding they were not entitled to qualified immunity for Solomon’s retaliation, conspiracy and excessive force claims.

The defendants appealed and the Eighth Circuit affirmed, holding that Solomon had sufficiently alleged retaliation by Jones and Thomas, conspiracy to commit excessive use of force by Jones and excessive use of force by Thomas. Taken in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, the facts sufficiently supported those allegations.

The appellate court noted that Solomon’s letter to Judge Hendren was protected by the First Amendment, and the Marshals’ alleged threats thus would have been in retaliation for a constitutionally-protected activity. The district court’s denial of summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds was affirmed. See: Solomon v. Petray, 795 F.3d 777 (8th Cir. 2015).

Following remand, the district court granted in part and denied in part a motion for summary judgment filed by the Benton County defendants, and denied two dispositive motions filed by Jones and Thomas. In the latter regard, the court wrote that the motions argued “no reasonable jury could find in favor of Solomon on his claims.” However, “their arguments ... do not point to a lack of evidence in support of Solomon’s claims; rather, they point to Solomon’s lack of credibility in the face of evidence contrary to his claims. In other words, they ask the Court to consider Solomon’s credibility at the summary judgment stage and weigh the evidence. The Court cannot do that at the summary judgment stage.”

A bench trial is scheduled for May 22, 2017, following more than six years of litigation. See: Solomon v. Petray, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Ark.), Case No. 5:10-cv-05163-JH. 

Related legal case

Solomon v. Petray