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$9,000 Settlement for Florida Prisoner’s Retaliation and Excessive Force Claims Against Guards

by David M. Reutter

On June 28, 2023, Florida prisoner Quincy Williams reached a settlement with the state and its Department of Corrections (DOC), which agreed to pay him $9,000 to resolve claims he was retaliated against—repeatedly—for exercising the right to grieve his conditions of confinement. The case illustrates the dilemma prisoners often face when questioning the actions of prison officials, who entered into the agreement less than two months after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed a grant of summary judgment to them on April 4, 2023.

When Williams verbally complained on Friday, October 27, 2017, about the inability to send out legal mail that day, “he set off a chain of events that were meant to intimidate and silence him,” the Eleventh Circuit recalled.

As is typical in understaffed Florida prisons, the running of mail was delayed, and the mail room official closed the legal mail window. When Williams complained to that official, he was told he would have to wait until Monday to send out his mail, which would cause him to miss a legal deadline.

So Williams informed Capt. Scarpati of the situation and asked for his intervention. He was again told he would have to wait until Monday. Not satisfied with that answer, Williams then tried to complain to the assistant warden. When Capt. Scarpati saw this, he sent a guard to place Williams in handcuffs.

Scarpati said, “Look, you disrespect[ed] me just then. You know you disrespected me? … In my face, you [are] going to try to go over my head?”

Williams was placed in confinement for several days without a written disciplinary report. Following that, he filed a grievance against Scarpati for retaliation. Scarpati went to Williams’ cell on November 14, 2017, for a cell inspection and said he would write him up anytime he likes and would personally take him to “jail.” Williams filed a grievance on that incident, too.

Another guard searched Williams’ cell in December 2017, telling him she was doing so because he kept writing up Scarpati. Williams filed yet another grievance on that incident. Later that month, four guards searched Williams’ cell and claimed they found a homemade knife in his pillow. On the way to confinement after the knife was discovered, a guard named Radford used force on the handcuffed and compliant Williams that resulted in knots on his head, a swollen jaw, and busted lip—all while two other guards named Babcock and Short watched, Williams said. He was issued a disciplinary report for possession of a weapon and found guilty after a hearing.

The next year, in 2018, Williams filed a pro se federal civil rights complaint that accused Scarpati of retaliation and Radford of using excessive force, also alleging that Babcock and Short failed to intervene. The federal court for the Southern District of Florida granted Defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and Williams appealed.

The retaliation claim asserted liability for all three incidents. The Eleventh Circuit found only the claim relating to the knife was properly resolved below due to the disciplinary finding for possession of a weapon. The placement in confinement and the first search were “adverse actions … that would deter any ordinary prisoner from making subsequent complaint,” the Court wrote. “[W]e now agree with our sister circuits that placing an inmate in disciplinary/segregated confinement constitutes an adverse action for purposes of a First Amendment retaliation claim.” Therefore, it reversed judgment on the confinement and search related claims.

Turning to the use of force claim, the Court said “the inquiry is not whether the force used was definitively malicious or sadistic, but whether ‘the evidence, in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, will support a reliable inference of wantonness in the infliction of pain,’” citing Campbell v. Sikes, 169 F.3d 1353 (11th Cir. 1999). While Williams got into a “verbal dispute” with the escorting guard, “a prisoner initiating a verbal altercation does not give prison guards carte blanche to use force sadistically and maliciously,” the Court said.

Thus the grant of summary judgment for Radford was reversed, as was judgment for Babcock and Short on the failure to intervene claims. The Court affirmed judgment on two other retaliation claims. Williams was represented before the Court by attorney Russell T. Gorkin with Proskauer Rose, LLP, in New York City. See: Williams v. Corr. Officer Radford, 64 F.4th 1185 (11th Cir. 2023).

Back at the district court, where Williams once again was proceeding pro se, the parties proceeded to reach their settlement agreement, paying him $9,000 to settle his claims. See: Williams v. Radford, USDC (S.D. Fla.), Case No. 2:18-cv-14107.  

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Related legal cases

Williams v. Corr. Officer Radford

Williams v. Radford