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11th Circuit Rules Florida Prisoner Claiming Sexual Assault by Guard Can Proceed With Cruel and Unusual Punishment Claim

by David M. Reutter

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment for defendants in a civil rights action alleging a guard sexually assaulted and used excessive force upon a prisoner.

The ruling, on January 7, 2020, came in an appeal brought by Kirstin Sconiers. His lawsuit concerned events that occurred at Florida’s Marion County Jail on February 12, 2014. Sconiers was serving a sentence for a misdemeanor offense of exposure. On the day in question, he met with his attorney via video conferencing.

Upon completing the conference, guard Fnu Lockhart arrived to escort Sconiers back to his cell. According to Sconiers, Lockhart toyed with him like a yo-yo, telling him to sit and stand three times. When Sconiers questioned Lockhart about the treatment, he was pepper-sprayed and slammed to the floor.

Once on the ground, Sconiers says Lockhart pulled his pants down. Lockhart then forcefully penetrated Sconier’ anus with his finger. An investigation ensued, but Sconiers hesitated before telling others about the sexual assault due to being embarrassed and an assumption that jail administrators were in league with the guards.

After Sconiers sued, acting pro se, the defendants moved for summary judgment. The district court granted the motion, and Sconiers appealed. Sconiers was represented by counsel on appeal. He argued the district court erred in resolving material issues of fact to enter the summary judgment and applying Boxer X v. Harris, 437 F. 3d 1107 (11th Cir. 2006) to dismiss the sexual assault claim.

The Eleventh Circuit noted that fact finding is reserved for trial and is inappropriate at the summary judgment stage. It held the district court improperly resolved facts related to the sexual assault and the pepper-spray claims.

First, the district court improperly found Sconiers “was fully clothed at all times during the encounter” with Lockhart and that Sconiers did “not state that his clothing was removed to facilitate the alleged assault.” The Eleventh Circuit found that Sconiers’ November 9, 2014, declaration filed in the record stated otherwise. While “Lockhart’s and his fellow guard’s strenuous assertions that this did not happen are true . . . those protestations cannot support summary judgment since Sconiers has sufficiently attested that these events did, in fact, occur.”

It was also held that the district court improperly found that Sconiers “experienced no bodily injury as a result of the attack.” While a medical examination concluded that Sconiers’ pain was from hemorrhoids, that was “not necessarily inconsistent with Sconiers’ allegation that Lockhart anally penetrated him with his finger.” Additionally, Sconiers reported stinging pain and blood on his toilet paper when defecating.

The Eleventh Circuit further found it improper for the district court to resolve facts relating to the use of the pepper spray and takedown. If Lockhart was treating Sconiers like a yo-yo in directing him to sit and immediately stand three times, there was no penological justification to pepper-spray Sconiers, which meant the takedown would also not be justified.

The court then noted that its decision in Boxer X was partially abrogated by Wilkins v. Gaddy, 559 U.S 34 (2010). Boxer X held that sexual abuse claims cannot be actionable if the prisoner did not suffer “more than a de minimus injury.”

The Wilkins court held that in Eighth Amendment excessive-force claims, the court shifted from an injury centric requirement to “the nature of the force — specifically, whether it was nontrivial and was applied maliciously and sadistically to cause harm.” Additionally, in 2013, Congress amended the Prison Litigation and Reform Act to allow sexual abuse claims in the absence of physical injury.

The district court’s order was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. See: Sconiers v. Lockhart, F.3d. (11th Cir. 2020)

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Related legal case

Sconiers v. Lockhart