11th Circuit Court of Appeals

Hall v. Merola
11th Circuit Court of Appeals
5/17/23, Judge Rosenbaum

Topics: 1983 (Eighth Amendment); 1983 (First Amendment)

This 37-page opinion was chock full of issues. Apparently attempting to induce as many groans as possible, Judge Rosenbaum starts the opinion in this case by writing: “This is one Heck of an appeal. That’s because resolution of the appeal turns in large part on the proper application of the Supreme Court precedent known as Heck v. Humphrey.” Yikes. Heck, a 1994 case, bars a convict from pursing a civil claim for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 if the proving the elements of his civil claim would necessarily call into question the validity of his criminal conviction.

Hall sued two correctional officers under 1983 for violations of his First and Eighth Amendment rights for spraying a chemical agent on him in retaliation for protected speech. He alleged that the guards came to his cell, telling him they were going to “gas” him because he was “a black n[*****], who ha[d] many past disciplinary reports for masturbation” and because Hall had “file[d] [l]awsuits and grievances against correctional officers and [was] testifying in trial against [another correctional officer,] Officer Bennett.”

And they did gas him. (NOTE: So, like, maybe this wasn’t the best opinion to start with a dad-joke.) The guards claimed that they did it to stop Hall from tampering with a sprinkler in his cell, and Hall was eventually “found guilty of tampering with the sprinkler,” though he denied tampering with the sprinkler. To be clear, the opinion later clarifies that he was found guilty of a disciplinary infraction, not a charged crime, but the opinion also notes that Heck was extended by the Supreme Court, in 1997, to bar 1983 claims that would undercut either convictions or prison disciplinary convictions.

Hall also alleged a separate 1983 First Amendment claim against a supervising officer, alleging that the supervisor approached him a week after the gassing and said he was going to order guards not to feed Hall because he filed so many grievances. He claims he was denied food for two specific days. Hall sued that officer in a separate claim.

The district court dismissed both claims, concluding that Hall would have to disprove that he was maced to get him to stop tampering with the sprinkler in order to prevail on his civil claims and also concluding that the hunger pangs alleged as the injury for the two days he was denied food did not constitute a physical injury under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”).

The procedural history of the claim is complicated, with the district judge repeatedly requiring amended complaints but barring additional claims or descriptions of physical injury of several topics. And then, over defense objection, the district judge read a jury instruction that concluded that the injury was minimal.

The Eleventh Circuit held that Heck does not apply to bar an excessive force claim. Hall eventually declined to argue that he had not tampered with the sprinkler, and he simply argued that the guards were excessive. That did not conflict with the disciplinary finding. The Eleventh Circuit brushed off an argument that Hall somewhat changed his story from the sprinkler thing being made up to not contesting it and pivoting to a mere excessive force overreaction to situation that called for a valid use of force.

The officers failed to preserve a claim of qualified immunity.

In regard to the First Amendment claim that argued that the motive for the gassing was retaliation for grievances, Heck does not apply. Regardless of whether Heck could ever apply now that Hall was no longer in custody, it is analogous to a claim of battery, not a claim of malicious prosecution. To state a 1983 First Amendment retaliation claim, a plaintiff generally must show: (1) she engaged in constitutionally protected speech, such as her right to petition the government for redress; (2) the defendant’s retaliatory conduct adversely affected that protected speech and right to petition; and (3) a causal connection exists between the defendant’s retaliatory conduct and the adverse effect on the plaintiff's speech and right to petition. The second of those elements requires proof of retaliation in the form of a common law tort. While a lot of retaliation Eighth Amendment cases rely on arrest or prosecution and courts analogize the claim to a common-law tort of false arrest or malicious prosecution (and might require that a prisoner rebut the valid basis for the prosecution as part of such a claim, which could result in a Heck issue), First Amendment retaliation claims can use any sort of adverse action as its second element (retaliation). Examples would be a civil action or termination of employment. And this case best fits with the tort of battery, not malicious prosecution. So there is no Heck issue.

Hall also appealed the denial of leave to amend his complaint under Rule 15(a) within 21 days of filing in order to add claims of deliberate indifference to serious medical needs stemming from being gassed (ordering a nurse not to treat his wounds). The court held that he was entitled to leave to amend.

The district court also dismissed claim for compensatory and punitive damages based on 42 U.S.C. 1997e(e), which provides a limitation on recovery for claims federal civil actions brought by a prisoner for mental or emotional injury without showing a physical injury or commission of a sexual act. Presumably, this pertained to the hunger claim, not the battery. The court noted in dicta that section 1997e(e) DOES NOT APPLY to a complaint filed in STATE court and then REMOVED to federal court, only cases “brought” in federal court. The statement is dicta only because the court did not reverse due to the jury’s finding that Hall was not even entitled to nominal damages, so the error was harmless.

The court did affirm the trial court’s denial of a motion to amend three years after commencement of the case and two months before trial. Leave to amend should be “freely given when justice so requires it,” but it is not an automatic right, and the trial judge did not abuse discretion in finding that the timing of the requested amendment and the need to trigger a new round of depositions justified denying permission to amend.

The court also reviewed the denial of a Rule 15(b) motion. That rule allows a party who move to amend the pleadings to conform to the evidence if the amendment “will aid in presenting the merits and the objecting party fails to satisfy the court that the evidence would prejudice that party’s action or defense on the merits.” To prevent prejudice, the court may grant a continuance to enable the objecting party to meet the evidence. And when the non-amending party does not object, the court must treat the proposed amendment as something raised in the pleadings. A Rule 15(b) motion can be made at any time—even AFTER judgment—to conform them to the evidence and to raise an issue that did not appear in the pleadings. “But failure to amend does not affect the result of the trial of that issue.” Here, there was no error because the jury heard all of the medical evidence and still held for the lieutenant, so the denial of leave to amend was harmless.

Finally, the district court agreed that a jury instruction on nominal damages that stated, “where, AS HERE, the damages are nominal,” crossed the line into instructing the jury to find the damages nominal. That said, the court again found no harm was done by the bad instruction because Hall’s counsel argued that the damages in the case were indeed nominal.

The court vacated the dismissal of Hall’s claims against the officers and remanded for leave to plead, but affirmed the verdict in favor of the lieutenant who supposedly ordered Hall to be starved in light of the verdict in the lieutenant’s favor and the lack of prejudicial error.


Terry P. Roberts
Director of Appellate Practice Fischer Redavid PLLC
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