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Prisoner Can Face Discipline Yet Still Sue Guard for Excessive Force Under Heck

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held on April 23, 2018 that the “inconsistent-factual-allegation gloss” on Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994) applies only “where the allegation in the [42 U.S.C.] § 1983 complaint is a specific one that both necessarily implies the earlier decision is invalid and is necessary to the success of the § 1983 suit itself.”

Before the Eleventh Circuit was the appeal of Florida prisoner Kirk Dixon. He was appealing the dismissal of his civil rights complaint that alleged guard Nathan Pollock used excessive force against him in August 2013 at the Everglades Correctional Institution.

Dixon went to the guard’s station after officials assigned an elderly, disabled prisoner to the upper bunk in Dixon’s cell. Guards refused to listen as Dixon explained that the other prisoner could not reach the top bunk due to his disability. As Dixon spoke, Pollock began to shout at him. When Dixon asked why he was shouting, Pollock jumped out of his chair, approached and threatened Dixon, and told him to return to his dorm.

Turning to leave, Dixon was tripped by Pollock, who then proceeded to kick him for about two minutes before other guards intervened and handcuffed Dixon. Pollock disputed that version of events, saying Dixon ignored orders to leave and made a fist as he lunged at Pollock. Either way, Dixon alleged he suffered broken ribs, a bruised sternum, severe facial swelling and loss of vision for a short time, a concussion and temporary inability to walk.

The district court dismissed the case on the basis that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction under Heck, which bars a § 1983 action when it is a “logical necessity that judgment for the plaintiff in that suit would contradict the existing punishment.”

The Court of Appeals noted, however, that a suit may proceed so long as “there would still exist a construction of facts that would allow the underlying [punishment] to stand.”

Thus, a prisoner may be disciplined for battery on a prison guard, yet that guard may be sued and held liable for using excessive force on the prisoner when subduing him. “When a plaintiff alleges a fact that if true would conflict with the earlier punishment, but that fact is not necessary to the success of his § 1983 suit, the Heck bar does not apply,” the appellate court wrote.

At issue was whether Pollock used excessive force on Dixon. “The success of this claim is not necessarily depending on whether Dixon lunged at Pollock or not. His disciplinary punishment, of course, establishes that he did. But that factual finding is not determinative of whether Pollock used excessive force against Dixon. It is logically possible both that Dixon lunged at Pollock and that Pollock used excessive force against him. Because ‘there is a version of the facts which would allow the [punishment] to stand’ alongside a successful § 1983 suit, Heck does not control.”

The district court’s order of dismissal was reversed and the case allowed to proceed on remand. See: Dixon v. Hedges, 887 F.3d 1235 (11th Cir. 2018). 


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Related legal case

Dixon v. Hedges