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Fifth Circuit Reinstates Louisiana Prisoner’s Excessive-Force Claim Despite Prison Disciplinary Conviction Issued for the Same Incident

by Matt Clarke

In its decision 28 years ago in Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a prisoner’s claims affecting the duration of his confinement—including loss of “good time”—are barred when a favorable decision would “negate” a prison disciplinary decision.

Further explaining the boundaries of this decision on November 17, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that a prisoner’s excessive force claim against guards was not necessarily barred by Heck even if he had related prison disciplinary convictions which had not been overturned.

The details of this complex decision begin with a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Louisiana prisoner Timothy Gray accusing four guards at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center of using excessive force against him.

Specifically, Gray’s complaint alleged that on March 20, 2016, guard Cpt. John Wells approached his cell, verbally antagonized him and then, along with Maj. Craig White, entered the cell and attacked the prisoner “without provocation, pulling him from his bunk and beating him.”

After that, Gray was taken to a shower where, despite being compliant, he was sprayed in the face and head with a chemical agent and ordered not to wash it off. Gray passed out and, upon regaining consciousness, was placed in full restraints and dragged to a transport van, while guard Lts. Michelle Sullivan and Lindell Slater allegedly beat him some more. His injuries included a broken nose and bruised kidneys.

The problem for Gray’s suit was that his allegations were partially contradicted by a prison disciplinary report, which alleged that Wells approached Gray’s cell for a targeted search and found him in an apparent state of intoxication, surrounded by vomit on the floor, sink and toilet.

The guards then took him to the shower, the disciplinary report continued, where they said he refused to obey orders to come to the door to have his restraints removed. He then allegedly kicked and spit at the guards, damaging one guard’s radio and justifying the use of a chemical agent to gain his compliance.

Gray was found guilty of disciplinary violations including “intoxication,” “defiance,” “aggravated disobedience” and “property destruction.” His punishment included the forfeiture of good time credits.

When he filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal court for the Middle District of Louisiana to accuse the guards of using excessive force, the claims arising from what happened after the shower were dismissed because Gray failed to mention them in the grievance he filed, thereby leaving that part of his suit to die on the prong of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PRLA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997(e), which requires prisoners filing civil rights claims to first exhaust their administrative remedies.

Moreover, the district court found that Gray’s other claims were barred by the Heck rule, since to agree that the guards used excessive force on him in the shower would also be agreeing that their disciplinary report was wrong. Thus the case was dismissed. Aided by attorney Donna Unkel Grodner, Esq. of Grodner & Associates, A.P.L.C. in Baton Rouge, Gray appealed.

Action Moves to Circuit Court

Taking up the case then, the Fifth Circuit agreed that the post-shower claims were barred by PLRA. But it said the record was insufficient to determine whether any of the other claims were barred by Heck because, although the disciplinary reports listed a number of factual findings, they did not state which findings were necessary to the disciplinary convictions. Furthermore, not all the disciplinary violations resulted in loss of good time credits, which is a requirement to act as a bar under Heck.

As the Court concluded, citing Ballard v. Burton, 444 F.3d 391 (5th Cir. 2006), “it is possible for [Gray] to have [committed all ten rule violations] and for [the officer’s use of force] to have been applied maliciously and sadistically to cause harm,” not merely to restore compliance. Therefore, the Court affirmed the dismissal of the post-shower claims and reversed and remanded all other claims.

While concurring with the decision, Judge Don R. Willett objected that the majority overlooked the portions of Gray’s disciplinary reports that did in fact reveal which findings resulted in his loss of good-time credits: All of those arising from his defiant conduct while he was in the shower. However, the judge noted, Gray’s excessive-force claim arose from Wells’ actions while en route to the shower, so those should proceed to trial, as the majority held.

Judge White also took issue with affirming dismissal of Gray’s post-shower claims, saying that his grievance, while perhaps vague, did not fail to mention them. In fact, Gray had produced a letter from an incarcerated informant to corroborate these post-shower claims, which the district court had dismissed, saying the guards named in it were not the same as those Gray named in his grievance and suit. That was also incorrect, the judge said.

However, “the majority’s factual folly proves irrelevant,” he added, since Gray did not address these points when opposing Defendants’ motion for summary judgment, thereby waving his opportunity to raise them now. See: Gray v. White, 18 F.4th 463 (5th Cir. 2021).

The U.S. Supreme Court denied Defendant’s petition for a writ of certiorari to hear their appeal on May 23, 2022. See: Gray v. White, 2022 U.S. LEXIS 2543. The case has now returned to the district court, and PLN will report developments as they become available. See: Gray v. White, USDC (M.D. La.), Case No. 3:16-cv-00689.

PLN has reported the arrests of numerous guards at Elayn Hunt for assaulting prisoners. Eight were fired by the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DPSC) after prisoner John Harold was beaten in 2017. [See: PLN, July 2017, p.47.] About a month after the FBI launched its investigation into that assault, another guard at the prison, Eric Lands, was arrested and fired in February 2017 for beating a prisoner. [See: PLN, Nov. 2017, p.63.]

The FBI investigation into Harold’s assault eventually led to the 2019 convictions of guard Sgt. Adrian Almodovar III, Lt. Eric Norwood and Capt. Charles Philson III. [See: PLN, Dec. 2019, p.63.] DPSC Secretary James M. LeBlanc promised, “We will not tolerate this type of behavior.” But in October 2021, the Westside Journal reported that guard Juan Harris was arrested and placed on leave for the alleged improper pepper-spraying of a prisoner. 

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