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Tenth Circuit: Colorado Prisoner’s Injury Requiring Medical Treatment Not De Minimus

by David M. Reutter

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, in a mixed ruling issued on January 11, 2023, found a prisoner’s allegations satisfied the physical injury requirement of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. The Court found that because the injuries required medical treatment, they were not de minimus.

Colorado prisoner Jabari J. Johnson is a “prolific pro se litigant,” the Court began, one who “by his own count” had filed over 60 civil rights suits accusing prison officials of violating his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. But all those lawsuits, except for those pending at the time of the instant appeal, were dismissed for failure to prosecute or failure to comply with court orders or procedural rules.

Johnson was escorted on May 3, 2018, to his prison’s case manager to retrieve copies he had requested of prior grievances. The case manager inquired about Johnson’s upcoming suits.  When Johnson refused to answer, the case manager became irate and ordered Johnson to leave if he wouldn’t answer questions. Johnson agreed to leave, and he was ordered to “cuff up.”

Moments later, Sgt. Joaquin Reyna, Lt. Brett Corbin, and another guard named Wargo arrived to escort Johnson back to his cell. They also placed Johnson in leg shackles. In response to Johnson’s protestations that the restraints were excessive, Reyna “placed his foot on [Johnson’s] untreated right foot.” Johnson protested this was painful, due to an earlier injury. But even with that knowledge, Reyna just smiled at Johnson sadistically, the prisoner said.

Johnson was allegedly pushed to walk faster despite the leg shackles, causing further pain. When he tried to walk “gingerly” up the stairs, the guards slammed Johnson “on his untreated fractured jaw,” also previously injured. He was then dragged 15-20 feet down the hall, as Wargo applied pressure on Johnson’s feet through the leg shackles, allegedly telling him to “shut the fuck up” when he complained. The guards then placed Johnson in a restraint chair.

The incident exacerbated his preexisting injuries, Johnson said, requiring medical treatment for his feet and a visit to “a facial and oral surgeon regarding [his] misaligned[,] concaved jaw.” Johnson also said he suffered major depression and anxiety due to the incident.

When Johnson sued Reyna, Corbin, and Wargo, they moved for dismissal, and the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado granted their motion. Johnson appealed.

On appeal, Defendants argued that because Johnson is a “seasoned and prolific litigant,” the Tenth Circuit should deny him the leeway it generally affords pro se plaintiffs. The Court declined that invitation, however, agreeing with Johnson’s appellate counsel that “filing many lawsuits as an incarcerated pro se litigant is no substitute for years of law school, access to legal research databases, and the like.”

The district court construed Johnson’s complaint as alleging only pain. But in liberally construing it, the Tenth Circuit found that Johnson alleged the guards not only caused him intense pain and but also exacerbated preexisting injuries to the point he needed medical treatment. They were also warned during the alleged assault that they were causing Johnson “excruciating pain.”

The injuries alleged were more than de minimus, the Court decided, since they lasted longer than scrapes, cuts or nosebleeds. They also allegedly required medical treatment, which is not a de minimus injury. Therefore, the Court said, the district court erred in dismissing the claims against Reyna and Corbin for failure to state a claim that would pass muster under PLRA. 

As Johnson failed to object to the magistrate’s recommendation to dismiss the claim against Wargo, he had waived the issue and dismissal was proper, the Court said. That part of the district court’s order was thus affirmed and the rest reversed. Johnson was represented before the Court by appointed counsel, attorneys Kathrina Szymborski and Easha Anand of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center in San Francisco, as well as David F. Oyer and Elizabeth A. Bixby from the non-profit’s office in Washington, D.C. See: Johnson v. Reyna, 57 F.4th 769 (10th Cir. 2023).