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Federal Court Awards Virginia Prisoner $500 for Excessive Force Claim

by Lonnie Burton

Following a bench trial on November 15, 2015, a magistrate judge in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia recommended awarding a state prisoner $500 after determining that two prison guards had used excessive force against him. The magistrate’s Report and Recommendation was adopted by U.S. District Court Judge James P. Jones on May 9, 2016.

Denis Rivera filed suit alleging that two Red Onion State Prison guards – Sgt. J.B. Dickerson and S. Patrick – used unnecessary force against him in 2012 when they struck him in the head and pushed him to the floor of his cell “for no reason.” Rivera further claimed that the pair of guards had “repeatedly kicked, punched and kneed him while he was lying on the ground.” He also named a prison nurse for failing to adequately treat his subsequent injuries. Rivera had requested over $20,000 in damages plus costs.

The case went to a bench trial, at which the magistrate found that Dickerson and Patrick had indeed used “unnecessary, and therefore, excessive force” against Rivera by striking him in the head, but found no evidence to support the claim that Rivera was repeatedly kicked, punched and kneed. The claims against the prison nurse were dismissed on a summary judgment motion when the magistrate found that Rivera merely disagreed with the nurse’s treatment decisions and held such a “claim of negligence is not actionable” under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

The magistrate determined that Rivera’s proven injuries were “minor” and included a knot on his head plus an abrasion and bruising in his right eye and cheekbone area. While agreeing that Rivera “suffered some discomfort” due to the guards’ use of force, he did not show the incident “resulted in the continuing pain or the emotional problems that he claims.”

The magistrate thus recommended awarding him $500 in damages, and Rivera filed an objection. Judge Jones, however, adopted the Report and Recommendation in full.

“I do not find any factual basis in Rivera’s submissions to reject or alter the factual findings of the Report concerning either the amount or type of force used by Dickerson and Patrick or the resulting injuries,” Jones wrote. Subsequently, the district court awarded Rivera $399.16 in costs for his filing fee, photocopies, postage and writing supplies. See: Rivera v. Dickenson, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Va.), Case No. 7:14-cv-00573; 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 60771.

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Related legal case

Rivera v. Dickenson