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Denial of Summary Judgment for Prison Officials Affirmed in West Virginia Excessive Force Case

by Scott Grammer

Miguel Delgado, incarcerated at the Mount Olive Correctional Complex (MOCC), alleged in a civil rights complaint that MOCC Warden David Ballard had authorized policies and procedures that allowed guards to use force against prisoners in the segregation unit without any requirement that they first “make efforts to temper their use of force against inmates.”

According to a March 9, 2017 ruling denying the defendants’ motions for summary judgment, Delgado claimed that he was sprayed with Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) spray at close range by guards Kevin McCourt and Jess Mattox, after Delgado had words with a nurse who refused to speak with him. Delgado alleged that after being sprayed with OC through the tray slot of his cell, he tried to use water from his sink to reduce the burning on his face and hands; however, Mattox and another prison guard, Hobert Allen, turned off the water so he could not decontaminate himself.

About ten minutes later, McCourt, Allen and Mattox, along with other guards, reportedly returned to Delgado’s cell to take him to the rec yard to be decontaminated. Allen turned on water in a sink, and told Delgado he was to be decontaminated. When Delgado pointed out that he was still wearing clothes drenched in OC, Allen accused him of refusing decontamination. Another guard told Delgado to remove his clothes, but that guard refused to take off Delgado’s handcuffs. He was again accused of refusing decontamination.

After meeting with the same nurse with whom he had had words earlier, the nurse allegedly took no action to help Delgado; instead, she sat down and read a book. The guards left him sitting at a table, still wearing his OC-soaked clothes, while they cleaned his cell. Delgado was unable to decontaminate himself for about an hour after being sprayed.

He argued in his complaint that the guards used excessive force in violation of the Eighth Amendment, and had exhibited deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs when they did not properly decontaminate him. Delgado alleged claims against Warden Ballard and also brought tort claims of assault and battery against McCourt, as well as intentional infliction of emotional distress against McCourt, Allen and Mattox. See: Delgado v. McCourt, Circuit Court of Kanawha County (WV), Case No. 15-C-1885.

The defendants filed motions for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, which were denied by the trial court. The denials were eventually upheld by the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia on March 25, 2019. The Supreme Court praised the trial court’s summary judgment ruling, stating, “Rather than being deficient or inaccurate, we find the circuit court’s well-reasoned order sufficiently addresses the parties’ disparate factual allegations and the legal standards upon which the court’s decision was based.” Justice Evan H. Jenkins issued a dissenting opinion. See: Ballard v. Delgado, 826 S.E.2d 620 (WV 2019). 

Related legal case

Ballard v. Delgado