Williams v. Correctional Officer Radford, et. al

Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals

Williams v. Correctional Officer Radford, et. al
11th Circuit Court of Appeals
4/4/23, Judge Jordan
Topics: 1983 (Eighth Amendment); 1983 (First Amendment); Summary Judgment Standard

Quincy Williams is a Florida prisoner. He alleges that he tried to mail legal mail on the last day it could be filed, a Friday, but the mail official announced that she was leaving and he would have to wait until Monday. Because that would result in an untimely filing, Williams implored Captain Scarpati to have the mail person return, but he refused. Williams then complained to the assistant warden. When Captain Scarpati saw this, he had Williams handcuffed, told him that he had “disrespected” him by trying to go “over my head,” and placed him in solitary confinement for several days without a written report.

Williams filed a written grievance, but no one responded. Williams then stated that Captain Scarpati, flanked by guards, continued to threaten him in retaliation for filing grievances. He alleges that a guard then searched his cell, threw his mattress into the hallway, and scattered his legal papers, telling him to stop complaining about Captain Scarpati.

Williams then said that later in that month, four guards game to his cell, told him that Captain Scarpati had sent them to “tear up” Williams’ “house,” and then they told him that they had found a homemade knife in Williams’ pillow that Williams claims was planted by the guards. He was then taken to solitary confinement and told to stop complaining about Captain Scarpati.

Williams then alleges that a group of guards beat him and then denied him medical care for the injuries. An affidavit by a fellow inmate corroborated the injuries, the beating, and the denial of medical care.

Williams then sued Scarpati and other guards under section 1983 for retaliation, excessive force, and (in regard to officers who restrained him while others beat him) failure to intervene.

The defendants moved for summary judgment, and a magistrate sided with the defendants. The magistrate focused solely on the finding that Williams had a knife in his pillow, and he ignored the evidence about the retaliation, intimidation, and violence against Williams.

The district court adopted the magistrate’s report and recommendation.

Williams sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging retaliation against him due to the fact that he filed grievances.

On appeal, Judge Jordan reminds us that summary judgment is warranted “when the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, presents no genuine issue of material fact and compels judgment as a matter of law in favor of the moving party.” And while review is de novo, the appellate court must “credit the ‘specific facts’ that” that the nonmovant “testified to, including those set out in his verified pleadings and filings.”

To establish a retaliation claim, a prisoner must demonstrate “that the prison official’s actions were the result of his having filed a grievance concerning the conditions of his imprisonment.” Mr. Williams can prevail on a retaliation claim if “(1) his speech was constitutionally protected; (2) [he] suffered adverse action such that the administrator’s allegedly retaliatory conduct would likely deter a person of ordinary firmness from engaging in such speech; and (3) there is a causal relationship between the retaliatory action and the protected speech.”

When an inmate “complains to the prison’s administrators about the conditions of his confinement,” he is exercising his First Amendment right of freedom of speech. Mr. Williams testified that he complained to the assistant warden about the mail, and that he filed grievances against Captain Scarpati based on the disciplinary/segregated confinement he received and the search and trashing of his cell. Search of an inmate’s cell and the destruction of his possessions and materials can support a First Amendment retaliation claim. For the first time (!!!!! What the hell???), the Eleventh Circuit joined sister circuits in holding that placing an inmate in disciplinary/segregated confinement constitutes an adverse action for purposes of a First Amendment retaliation claim.

In regard to a causal connection, the repeated statements by guards that the retaliation was done to get Mr. Williams to stop filing grievances meets the test. The court applied a “motivating factor” test and noted that the

district court seemed to take Captain Scarpati at his word and ignored Mr. Williams’ testimony (and the reasonable inferences which could be drawn from it). Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Mr. Williams—as we must on summary judgment—we think that a reasonable jury could find that Captain Scarpati was motivated by (and wanted to deter) Mr. Williams’ complaints against him. This first retaliation claim therefore survives summary judgment on the “motivating factor” issue.

The court came to the same conclusion in regard to the trashing of Williams’ cell. The district court accepted Scarpati’s version of events and rejected Williams’ version, which it was not entitled to do at the summary-judgment stage. The retaliation was accompanied by threats and instructions to stop filing grievances.

Sadly, the circuit court sided with the district court in regard to retaliation related to the finding of a knife and the punishment related to that alleged infraction. Williams was charged with possession of the knife, received a disciplinary hearing, and was found to have possessed the knife. Despite the allegations that the knife was planted, the circuit court found that under its precedents, where an inmate is found guilty of a disciplinary infraction after being afforded due process and there was evidence to support the disciplinary panel’s fact-finding, this is a complete defense to a retaliation claim.

In regard to the Eighth Amendment 1983 excessive force claims, the ultimate question was whether force was applied in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline or, instead, to maliciously and sadistically cause harm. The magistrate and district held that because there was a finding that Williams was “disorderly,” he could not show that beating him up was not valid discipline. (NOTE: Really?? The allegations include punching to the face, being slammed into a wall, a choking him, which he alleges resulted in him suffering a busted lip, loose teeth, swollen jaw. He alleged that he was handcuffed at the time of the beating).

On appeal, the circuit noted that all the plaintiff had to do was show that there was a reliable inference of wantonness in the infliction of pain. Thankfully, the circuit found summary judgment inappropriate. The circuit court examined two “equally important principles.” The first is the chilling statement of law that “unreasonable or unnecessary force does not necessarily constitute excessive force for purposes of the Eighth Amendment.” The competing principle, however, is that even though “the Constitution does not require comfortable prisons, it does not permit inhumane ones.” So “unreasonable force” and “unnecessary force” is okay. It’s just “inhumane” force that is malicious and sadistic that we want to stop.

To determine where force falls along this spectrum between unreasonable and unnecessary force (which is apparently totally fine) and inhumane, sadistic, and malicious (which is unconstitutional), we look to five factors: “(1) the extent of injury; (2) the need for application of force; (3) the relationship between that need and the amount of force used; (4) any efforts made to temper the severity of a forceful response; and (5) the extent of the threat to the safety of staff and inmates, as reasonably perceived by the responsible officials on the basis of facts known to them.”

Thankfully, the court concluded that Williams raising his voice did not “give prison cards carte blanche to use force sadistically and maliciously.” The injuries were severe. Disturbingly, the “need for application of force” was deemed to weigh in the officer’s favor because the verbal altercation (Williams shouting) warranted use of force to “restore order,” and guards do not have to wait until disturbances reach dangerous proportions before responding. (NOTE: I was today-years-old when I learned that guards have a legal right to beat up prisoners for getting mouthy, and I’m nauseous about it. I thought beating people up for getting mouthy was battery and battery that results in permanent injury or disfigurement like the injuries alleged here were felonies that could land you in prison. Silly me.). At least the circuit weighed the level of force in Williams’ favor. He was not armed, he was handcuffed, he was restrained, and he did not physically harm anyone or even physically resist. Thus, the threat to safety was low. The guards deny even using force, so there’s no allegation that the level of force was justified. A reasonable jury could find that the force was excessive.

Thankfully, the circuit court took the time to partially overrule Bennett v. Parker, 898 F.2d 1530, 1533 (11th Cir. 1990). That case implied that a prisoner’s testimony of violence needs objective corroboration to avoid summary judgment. The circuit clarified that to the extent that Bennett suggests (or can be read to hold) that an inmate’s first-hand account of excessive force needs corroboration to survive summary judgment, it is no longer good law in this circuit. Sitting en banc, the Court held in 2018 that an affidavit which satisfies Rule 56 and is based on personal knowledge “may create an issue of material fact and preclude summary judgment even if it is self-serving and uncorroborated.” Also, the Supreme Court has recently held that if guards gratuitously beat a prisoner, but the prisoner has the good fortune to make it through without being seriously injured, the “nature of the force” prong cannot thwart the 1983 excessive force claim. Serious or permanent injuries are not required.

The circuit court also vacated the summary judgment finding on the failure to intervene claims. To survive summary judgment, Mr. Williams had to present sufficient evidence to permit a reasonable jury to find that Officers Babcock and Short were (1) in a position to intervene in an ongoing constitutional violation and (2) failed to do so. Failing to intervene when another officer uses excessive force counts. Because the lower court found no constitutional violation, those officers prevailed below, but because the circuit court reversed, the “failure to intervene claim” was reversed, too. https://media.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/pub/files/202013364.pdf

Terry P. Roberts
Director of Appellate Practice Fischer Redavid PLLC
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