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Sixth Circuit Refuses Michigan Prisoner’s Excessive Force Claim Despite Guard’s Conviction for Battery

by David M. Reutter

On August 16, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed dismissal of a Michigan prisoner’s lawsuit with an outrageous-­sounding opinion that a guard “may have violated a prison use-­of-­force policy or committed a state-­law tort,” yet that “does not necessarily” mean there was also a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Joseph Johnson was sentenced to serve a few weeks in Michigan’s Kalamazoo County Jail for violating probation on a domestic violence conviction. Immediately after sentencing, he was taken to the jail for booking. The next morning, guard Chantel Einhardt heard Johnson “yelling and banging” on his holding cell door because he “wanted to be moved to general population,” the Court recalled. Einhardt said he would be moved and also restrained if he kept hitting the door.

At around 3:30 p.m., Johnson was left unhandcuffed in the intake area to await transfer to general population. He apparently then violated jail policy by wrapping a towel around his head—nothing in the record explained how this was a violation—and refused an order to remove it by guard Alan Miller, at whom Johnson reportedly argued and threw his sack lunch.

Einhardt observed this situation and decided to de-­escalate it by escorting Johnson to general population. En route, she twice called for Johnson to slow down so she could maintain control of him, but he appeared to ignore her. Guard Clair Sootsman got involved; surveillance video showed him pointing Johnson to a wall. Words were exchanged; Sootsman called Johnson a “pussy,” and the detainee replied, “I am,” before taking another step to pass the guard and continue on his way.

Other guards later said they didn’t see this or didn’t find it threatening. But Sootsman did. Video showed he shoved Johnson against the wall and took him down in a chokehold. Johnson didn’t resist, and the entire incident lasted about seven seconds. An internal investigation found Sootsman violated jail use of force policy; he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery and was fined $546.

With the aid of attorney David A. Dworetsky of Fieger, Fieger, Kenney & Harrington, P.C. in Southfield, Johnson filed suit in federal court for the Western District of Michigan, making civil rights claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 as well as state tort law. The district court granted Sootsman’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed without prejudice the state law claims. Johnson appealed.

On appeal, Sootsman pressed his claim to qualified immunity (QI). The Sixth Circuit agreed, finding Johnson failed to prove the subjective element of QI—that Sootsman used the force “maliciously and sadistically,” as held in Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1 (1992). The Court found Sootsman had a “plausible basis” to believe Johnson posed a threat and required restraint; it also found the force applied was proportional to the threat, lasting only seven seconds. Moreover, Johnson did not suffer any serious injury. Thus, the Court concluded that “no reasonable jury could find that Sootsman’s actions arose from a sadistic intent to inflict pain on Johnson rather than a (perhaps mistaken) belief of the need to restrain him.” See: Johnson v. Sootsman, 79 F.4th 608 (6th Cir. 2023).

The case illustrates the high bar prisoners must hurdle to prove an Eighth Amendment violation, especially with use-­of-­force claims. As the Sixth Circuit noted, state tort law provides a remedy. In Johnson’s case, the guard’s battery conviction is evidence that supports a tort claim for battery, which would also provide leverage for a settlement.  

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Related legal case

Johnson v. Sootsman