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Fourth Circuit Reinstates Virginia Prisoner’s Spoliation Motion for Lost Video of His Alleged Assault by Guards

by David M. Reutter

On July 25, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that a district court in Virginia abused its discretion by implicitly overruling a prisoner’s spoliation objections when several critical issues were left unresolved by the magistrate judge.

The Court’s opinion was issued in an appeal brought by prisoner Gary Wall, whose original pro se suit raised constitutional and state-law claims against officials at Red Onion State Prison. Wall got into a physical altercation with guards there in August 2015, allegedly over a jar of peanut butter in which they thought he’d hidden contraband. During the encounter, he was blinded with pepper spray when he reportedly felt someone strike him in the back of the head, and he lost consciousness.

As part of his evidentiary discovery, Wall sought production of videos that recorded the encounter. When he learned the videos were not preserved, Wall moved the federal court for the Western District of Virginia for spoliation sanctions.

After a hearing in May 2019, Magistrate Judge Pamela M. Sargent recommended denying the motion and entering judgment against Wall on all claims. Without explicitly addressing Wall’s objections, the district court then adopted the magistrate’s recommendations in March 2021. Wall timely appealed.

At the Fourth Circuit, Defendants argued that Wall’s objections were neither timely nor specific, so the district court didn’t need to rule upon them. But the Court disagreed. It found Wall filed his objections within the fourteen-day time frame set in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(a), which was extended by six days under Fed. R. Civ. P. 6(d) because required notices were served via mail. Wall not only clearly objected to the denial of his spoliation motion, he cited his informal and regular grievances that requested the unpreserved videos. He also attached a copy of the state Department of Corrections policy requiring retention of video like the one he sought.

As to the merits of the spoliation claim, the magistrate judge made no explanation how she concluded that Wall “did not provide timely specific requests that the defendants preserve [this] additional video,” the Court noted. The record showed Wall “sought the unpreserved video evidence just five days after the altercation — well before the video would be recorded over in the ordinary course of business,” the Court continued.

Defendants further argued nothing in the record indicated an individual defendant reviewed Wall’s grievances.  But “the factual record,” the Fourth Circuit said, “is incomplete precisely because the magistrate judge never conducted a full hearing focused on the spoliation issue.” While Wall’s motion never sought sanctions under Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(e), the prisoner “did clearly seek remedies that included not only a default judgment or adverse inference, but also an instruction precluding Defendants from arguing that the ‘contents of the video corroborated the Defendants’ version of events.’”

Therefore, the Court said, the magistrate judge “should have considered not only the propriety of severe sanctions under Rule 37(e)(2), but also the possibility of more moderate sanctions under Rule 37(e)(1).”

Because the Court found both “factual and legal issues essential to a reasoned spoliation analysis were left unresolved by both the magistrate judge and the district court,” the district court’s judgment was vacated and the case remanded to address those issues.

At the Court, Wall’s case was argued by attorney Joshua D. Marcin of the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC. See: Wall v. Rasnick, 42 F.4th 214 (4th Cir. 2022).

The case has now returned to the district court, where Wall is represented by attorneys Elizabeth Lockwood and Kathryn M. Ali of Ali & Lockwood LLP in Washington, DC. The motion for sanctions has been reopened, and PLN will report developments as they are available. See: Wall v. Rasnick, USDC (W.D. Va.), Case No. 7:17-cv-00385. 

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