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Allegation that Prisoner was Beaten after Guard Outed Him as Sex Offender Stated Eighth Amendment Claim

by Douglas Ankney

A federal district court in the Western District of Virginia held that a prisoner who alleged he was beaten after a jail guard informed other prisoners of his sex offender status had stated an Eighth Amendment claim.

John E. Lonewolf arrived at the Rockbridge Regional Jail (RRJ) on October 30, 2012 after being convicted of a drug-related offense. When Sergeant Steve Garrett booked Lonewolf into the facility, he used his birth name of Earl William Giger. Sgt. Garrett was aware that Lonewolf had been convicted in 1991 of aggravated sexual assault of a child.

Garrett then mentioned, in the presence of two other prisoners, that Lonewolf was a sex offender. The sergeant escorted Lonewolf to a cellblock that was shared with several prisoners, including Joel Copper. At about 8 p.m., Copper entered Lonewolf’s cell and brutally beat him, calling him by the name “Giger.” Lonewolf suffered multiple injuries to his left eye, left ocular ridge, left parietal skull, mandible, palate, spleen, two ribs, left lung and intestines. He filed suit in federal court under § 1983, alleging Sgt. Garrett had failed to protect him from harm.

At an evidentiary hearing, Copper testified that he informed Garrett in August 2012 that he did not want to be housed with a child sex offender because of his violent reaction to them. Copper told Garrett he had viciously assaulted another RRJ prisoner, Fabian Schlegel, in July 2010 because he believed Schlegel to be a child rapist. He further testified that Garrett implied to him that Lonewolf was a sex offender, and when other prisoners confirmed it, he assaulted Lonewolf.

Sgt. Garrett moved for summary judgment. He denied being aware of Copper’s propensity for violence toward sex offenders and denied having revealed Lonewolf’s sex offender status to other prisoners.

The district court noted that the Eighth Amendment imposes a duty on prison officials to “protect prisoners from violence at the hands of other prisoners,” citing Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994). To establish a failure to protect claim, a prisoner must show that prison staff were aware of facts from which an inference of a substantial risk of serious harm existed, and that they drew that inference. In a summary judgment proceeding, the court must accept as true the facts alleged by the nonmoving party; if there is a dispute as to a genuine issue of material fact, summary judgment must be denied.

The court observed the facts in the case were in dispute. Accepting Lonewolf’s version as true, Sgt. Garrett knew of the risk of serious harm to Lonewolf at the hands of Copper, and drew the inference by revealing Lonewolf’s sex offender status to other prisoners. Thus, Lonewolf had stated a valid Eighth Amendment claim. Accordingly, on May 7, 2019, the district court denied the motion for summary judgment. 

However, the court granted Garrett’s motion for sanctions against Lonewolf for failing to respond to discovery requests. As a result, Lonewolf was “not [ ] permitted to call any witnesses or present any evidence which has not been provided in discovery or introduced at the evidentiary hearing” in an earlier lawsuit that he had filed. In addition, the district court imposed monetary sanctions for attorney fees and costs incurred by Garrett for having to file the motion for sanctions. The case remains pending. See: Lonewolf v. Garrett, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Va.), Case No. 5:18-cv-00004-MFU-JCH. 

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Related legal case

Lonewolf v. Garrett