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Florida Prisoner’s Suit Proceeds Against Guards for Use of Force, Retaliation

by Dale Chappell

On March 14, 2018, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida ruled that a prisoner’s lawsuit against Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) guards could move forward, denying the FDOC’s motion for summary judgment.

Christopher Sanders filed suit in federal court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that FDOC staff violated his First, Fourth and Eighth Amendment rights when they retaliated against him after he filed grievances and his mother called prison administrators to complain.

In his detailed filings, Sanders stated in sworn declarations that staff continuously threatened him if he kept filing grievances, and denied him food and medical care. He argued that staff said they were going to “break” him of his “little habit” of filing grievances. The FDOC used cell extraction teams and excessive force to make their point, he added, even dragging him back into his cell for more beatings after he voluntarily left the cell when the extraction team arrived. He also alleged that guard John Green said he would keep receiving empty food trays until he stopped filing grievances. When Sanders alerted Assistant Warden Hope Gartman, he said she told him she didn’t care and it would be in his best interest to have his mother stop calling in complaints.

The FDOC filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Sanders’ claims lacked merit and it was entitled to immunity. While the district court granted summary judgment on some issues, it found Sanders’ remaining claims strong enough to move forward and denied summary judgment as to those claims.

In order to survive summary judgment, a party must show there are genuine issues of material fact in dispute in the case. An opposing party’s motion for summary judgment may be granted when there is “no genuine dispute as to any material fact” and the litigant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Material facts may be shown by a litigant’s filings and affidavits, which include unsworn declarations verified under 28 U.S.C. § 1746. A court views all facts in the light most favorable to the party not seeking summary judgment, and may only grant a summary judgment motion when, taken as a whole, no rational trier of fact would find for the other party.

Sanders’ Eighth Amendment claims that survived summary judgment alleged that defendants Lt. Thomas North and guards Charles Richter, Thomas Wainwright and C. Markham assaulted Sanders while he was being moved to medical for emergency treatment after an earlier beating by staff. According to Wainwright, Sanders became belligerent and video footage showed guards pushing Sanders, who was restrained, onto his chest on the ground in order to “bring him into compliance.” In addition to his excessive force claim, Sanders argued that staff members failed to protect him from harm in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

The district court found that the facts alleged by Sanders were not contradicted by the record, and that FDOC staff asserted “markedly different accounts” of the use of force incident. The court also found that the FDOC’s claim that Sanders did not make prison officials aware of the abuse was contradicted by the record. Therefore, the FDOC’s summary judgment motion was denied as to those claims.

Sanders’ First Amendment retaliation claim – that staff deprived him of food for filing grievances – also survived summary judgment. The district court noted it has been “routinely held” that a prisoner’s right to file grievances is protected under the First Amendment, and rejected the FDOC’s argument that the claim should have been brought under the Eighth Amendment. In Sanders’ sworn amended filings, he stated facts that contradicted the defendants’ assertions and that, the court wrote, constituted a “genuine issue of material fact.”

“The Constitution does not mandate comfortable prisons,” the court said. “But neither does it permit inhumane ones.” Given the number of surviving claims, the district court referred the case to the Jacksonville Division Civil Pro Bono Appointment Program.

The court appointed counsel to represent Sanders following its summary judgment order, and the case settled on July 13, 2018. See: Sanders v. Green, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Fla.), Case No. 3:14-cv-01493-MMH-PDB; 2018 US Dist LEXIS 41793. 


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Related legal case

Sanders v. Green