280 F.3d 1308 (11th Cir. 2002), 00-14090, Johnson v Breeden

Docket Nº:00-14090
Citation:280 F.3d 1308
Party Name:ERNEST D. JOHNSON, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. BRIAN BREEDEN, Sgt., RUDOLPH GOMEZ, Defendants-Appellants, EDUARDO LUCIANO, Defendant.
Case Date:January 28, 2002
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

Page 1308

280 F.3d 1308 (11th Cir. 2002)

ERNEST D. JOHNSON, Plaintiff-Appellee,


BRIAN BREEDEN, Sgt., RUDOLPH GOMEZ, Defendants-Appellants,


No. 00-14090

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

January 28, 2002

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Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia

Before CARNES, COX and NOONAN,[*] Circuit Judges.

CARNES, Circuit Judge:

Brian Breeden and Rudolph Gomez appeal from a judgment entered upon a jury verdict finding that while acting as corrections officers they violated the Eighth Amendment rights of a prisoner, Ernest Johnson, by using excessive force against him. They ask us to reverse the judgment on grounds related to the jury instructions and special interrogatories that were used, and also because they say that no punitive damages should have been awarded. In addition, they seek a reversal of the district court's order awarding attorney fees. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the judgment as to liability damages but reverse the order awarding punitive damages and attorney fees and remand for a determination of the appropriateness of punitive damages and recalculation of the amount of attorney fees.



This lawsuit began when Johnson filed a variety of claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Breeden, Gomez, and others in Page 1312

their individual capacity. He claimed that Breeden and Gomez, along with corrections officers Eduardo Luciano and Shane Burel, used excessive force against him while he was a prisoner, subjecting him to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.1

Breeden, Gomez, and Luciano filed a joint motion for summary judgment on qualified immunity and other grounds.2 The district court denied that motion insofar as the excessive force claim was concerned. The case was tried before a jury. At trial, the parties agreed that on August 22, 1995, Ernest Johnson was incarcerated at Phillips Correctional Institution in Buford, Georgia, serving a 20-year sentence for armed robbery and aggravated assault. On that day, he was returning to his cell after a work detail. A prison guard questioned Johnson as to his possession of food items from the prison store when it was not his "store day." An altercation ensued. The Correctional Emergency Response Team responded to the disturbance.

The accounts of what happen thereafter diverge, and the jury heard sharply conflicting evidence. Johnson's version of events is that after Breeden, Gomez, Luciano, Burel, and another corrections officer named Eric Whitehead escorted him into his cell, Breeden choked him, and the other officers, except Whitehead (whom Johnson did not sue), punched him. Johnson was thrown to the floor, kicked, and beaten with batons until he lost consciousness. He started convulsing, was taken to the prison infirmary, and eventually to Gwinnett Medical Center. There, Johnson was examined and found to have a closed head injury with swelling of the left posterior parietal region of his head and seizure, as well as left eyebrow laceration, and multiple contusions to his face, shoulders, and upper back.

In contrast, Breeden and Gomez maintain, and presented evidence at trial, that Johnson became unruly when confronted about the store goods, and that after Johnson was escorted to his cell he attacked Breeden. No one attacked Johnson. Instead, he injured himself when he fell and hit his head on the heater in his cell as the officers were trying to restrain him. They only responded with the force necessary to restrain Johnson and protect themselves. In addition to putting forth this version of the facts, Breeden and Johnson disputed the severity of the injuries Johnson sustained. They introduced medical evidence, in the form of deposition testimony from the doctor who examined Johnson shortly after he was injured, that he had suffered only a cut over his eye and some minor contusions. In that doctor's opinion, Johnson's injuries did not fit his story of having been beaten up.

After hearing the conflicting evidence, the jury returned a verdict in Johnson's favor against Breeden and Gomez, awarding Johnson $25,000 in compensatory damages, plus $45,000 in punitive damages ($30,000 from Breeden and $15,000 from Gomez). But the jury also returned a verdict in favor of Defendant Luciano. Breeden and Gomez filed a Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law or, in the Alternative, Motion For New Trial, which contended, among other things, that they were entitled to a new trial because Page 1313

the district court had erred in refusing to submit their special interrogatories "which would have required the jury to find the acts necessary for a final determination by the Court of the Defendants' qualified immunity defense." The district court denied that motion.

Content with his judgment against Breeden and Gomez, Johnson has not appealed the judgment for Luciano or any of the pretrial rulings that went against Johnson on his other claims. Breeden and Gomez have appealed the judgment against them and the denial of their motion for new trial, as well as the award of punitive damages and attorney fees.



After the close of evidence, the defendants requested that the following jury instruction be given regarding Johnson's excessive force claim:

After incarceration, only the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain . . . constitutes cruel and unusual punishment . . . [under] the Eighth Amendment. To be cruel and unusual punishment, the challenged conduct must involve more than ordinary lack of due care for the prisoner's interests or safety. Wantonness, not inadvertence or good faith mistake, characterize the conduct prohibited by the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause, whether that conduct occurs in connection with establishing conditions of confinement, supplying medical needs, or restoring official control over a tumultuous cellblock.

I charge you that to establish an Eighth Amendment claim for excessive use of force, a Plaintiff must prove that force was applied maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm. A plaintiff is required to show more than mere negligence to establish a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Crucial to establishing an unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain is some proof that officials acted with specific intent. Therefore, unless you find that one or more of the Defendants have, in some way, acted with the specific purpose of harming Plaintiff, you may not hold those individuals liable in this case.

(citations and internal marks omitted).

The district court rejected that request, and instead used the Eleventh Circuit pattern jury instruction, substantially verbatim. The court instructed the jury, in relevant part:

[T]he plaintiff claims the defendants, while acting under color of state law, intentionally deprived the plaintiff of the plaintiff's rights under the Constitution of the United States. Page 1314

Specifically the plaintiff claims that while the defendants were acting under color of authority of the State of Georgia as correctional officers of the Phillips Correctional Institute, the defendants did intentionally violate the plaintiff's constitutional right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment.

Under the 8th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, every person convicted of a crime or a criminal offense has the right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. This includes, of course, the right to not be assaulted or beaten without legal justification.

The law further provides that a person may sue in this Court for an award of money damages against anyone who, under the color of any state law or custom, intentionally violates the plaintiff's rights under the Constitution of the United States.

In order to prevail on this claim, the plaintiff must prove each of the following facts by a preponderance of the evidence. First, that the defendants intentionally committed acts that violated the plaintiff's constitutional right not to be subjected to cruel and usual [sic] punishment. . . .

The constitutional right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment includes the right not to be subjected to excessive force while being detained in custody by a law enforcement or corrections officer.

On the other hand, not every push or shove, even if it later seems unnecessary, will give rise to a constitutional violation, and an officer always has the right and duty to use such reasonable force as is necessary under the circumstances to maintain order and assure compliance with prison regulations.

Whether or not any force used in this instance was excessive is an issue for you to decide on the basis of whether such force, if any, was applied in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or whether it was used maliciously and sadistically to cause harm.

In making that decision, you should consider the amount of force in relationship to the need presented, the motive of the officers, the extent of the injury inflicted, and any effort made to temper the severity of the force used.

Of course, when prison officials maliciously and sadistically use force to cause harm, the result would be cruel and unusual punishment regardless of the significance of the injury to the inmate.

The defendants contend these instructions were defective in several ways. In considering their contentions, we keep in mind that it is a deferential standard of review we apply to the district court's jury instructions and special...

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