727 F.3d 312 (4th Cir. 2013), 12-6705, Hill v. Crum

Docket Nº:12-6705
Citation:727 F.3d 312
Opinion Judge:AGEE, Circuit Judge:
Party Name:DEMETRIUS HILL, Plaintiff - Appellee, v. C.O. CRUM, Defendant - Appellant, and TERRY O'BRIEN, Warden; MR. STRICKLAND, Associate Warden; MR. WILSON, Captain; LT. STIGER; PULIVAR, Counselor; COUNSELOR MULLINS; MS. HALL, Case Manager; NURSE MEADE; DR. ALLRED; DR. ROFF, Health Administrator; C.O. T. TAYLOR; C.O. TAYLOR; C.O. MARTIN, Defendants
Attorney:James J. O'Keeffe, IV, GENTRY, LOCKE, RAKES & MOORE, Roanoke, Virginia, for Appellant. Arlene Sokolowski, SOKOLOWSKI LAW OFFICE, North Royalton, Ohio, for Appellee.
Judge Panel:Before NIEMEYER, AGEE, and THACKER, Circuit Judges. Judge Agee wrote the majority opinion, in which Judge Niemeyer joined. Judge Thacker wrote a dissenting opinion. THACKER, Circuit Judge, dissenting:
Case Date:August 14, 2013
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
 
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Page 312

727 F.3d 312 (4th Cir. 2013)

DEMETRIUS HILL, Plaintiff - Appellee,

v.

C.O. CRUM, Defendant - Appellant,

and

TERRY O'BRIEN, Warden; MR. STRICKLAND, Associate Warden; MR. WILSON, Captain; LT. STIGER; PULIVAR, Counselor; COUNSELOR MULLINS; MS. HALL, Case Manager; NURSE MEADE; DR. ALLRED; DR. ROFF, Health Administrator; C.O. T. TAYLOR; C.O. TAYLOR; C.O. MARTIN, Defendants

No. 12-6705

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

August 14, 2013

Argued March 22, 2013.

Page 313

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia, at Roanoke. James C. Turk, Senior District Judge. (7:08-cv-00283-JCT-RSB).

REVERSED AND REMANDED.

James J. O'Keeffe, IV, GENTRY, LOCKE, RAKES & MOORE, Roanoke, Virginia, for Appellant.

Arlene Sokolowski, SOKOLOWSKI LAW OFFICE, North Royalton, Ohio, for Appellee.

Before NIEMEYER, AGEE, and THACKER, Circuit Judges. Judge Agee wrote the majority opinion, in which Judge Niemeyer joined. Judge Thacker wrote a dissenting opinion.

OPINION

Page 314

AGEE, Circuit Judge:

Plaintiff Demetrius Hill (" Hill" ) sued Correctional Officer William Crum (" Crum" ) pursuant to Bivens v. Six Unnamed Agents, 403 U.S. 388, 91 S.Ct. 1999, 29 L.Ed.2d 619 (1971), alleging that Crum used excessive force against him in violation of Hill's Eighth Amendment rights. Claiming he was entitled to qualified immunity, Crum appeals the district court's denial of his Rule 50(b) motion for judgment as a matter of law. For the reasons that follow, we reverse the district court's order denying Crum's motion for judgment as a matter of law, and remand with instructions to enter judgment in favor of Crum.

I. Factual Background

At all times relevant to this appeal, Hill was an inmate in the U.S. Penitentiary Lee (" USP Lee" ) in Jonesville, Virginia. Hill shared a cell with Delmont Logan

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(" Logan" ).1 On November 1, 2007, Logan broke a fire sprinkler in their cell, which caused the cell to flood. Hill and Logan submitted to hand restraints in order to be moved to a new cell so the damage could be repaired. Logan was first escorted by a correctional officer to a different cell, which left Crum alone in the flooded cell with Hill.

After Logan was removed, Crum shoved Hill and required him to leave his legal material in the flooded cell. Without provocation, Crum then assaulted Hill, punching him in the abdomen and ribs, and elbowing the side of his head. During the assault, Crum shouted at Hill, " break another sprinkler, I'll break your neck." (J.A. 219). The assault lasted about two minutes before Crum moved Hill to a holding cell, knocking his head against a gate on the way out. The prison staff kept Hill in ambulatory restraints for seventeen hours following the assault.2 Hill alleged that as a result of Crum's assault, he suffered a bruised rib, temporary dizziness, and a " vicious, vicious headache." (J.A. 150-51, 223).

About an hour after the assault, prison officials recorded two videos of Hill and Logan in their new cell. The videos depict Hill standing in his cell. While he does not seem to be in visible distress, he alleged he had a swollen eye, although that is not apparent in any of the videos.3

Theresa Meade (" Meade" ), a registered nurse, examined Hill after he was moved to the holding cell. Meade found that Hill had " [n]o injuries," (J.A. 192), and documented her assessment in a contemporaneous report, " Inmate Injury Assessment and Followup," (J.A. 201). Meade testified that while her examination focused on injuries caused by the ambulatory restraints, it would have included notes regarding Hill's dizziness, feelings of pain, inability to stand or understand had she noticed any problems, or if he had complained of any injuries. Hill's medical records did not indicate any complaints of injuries resulting from his alleged assault by Crum.

On April 9, 2008, Hill brought a pro S.E. Bivens suit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia against eleven USP Lee prison officials alleging various deprivations of his rights. Hill's complaint did not name Crum as a defendant or claim any injuries arising out of the November 1, 2007 assault; however, he did complain about the length of time during which he was subjected to ambulatory restraints that day. On April 18, 2008, Hill, still proceeding pro se, amended his pleading to include a separate excessive force claim against Crum based on the alleged assault in the flooded cell on November 1, 2007.4

Initially, the district court sua sponte dismissed Hill's excessive force claim

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against Crum for failure to state a claim, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1).5 In doing so, the court relied on Norman v. Taylor, 25 F.3d 1259 (4th Cir. 1994) (en banc),6 which held, " absent the most extraordinary circumstances, a plaintiff cannot prevail on an Eighth Amendment excessive force claim if his injury is de minimis." Id. at 1263. Finding that Hill did not allege that Crum's assault had caused more than a de minimis injury, the district court dismissed his claim. Hill, still without counsel, appealed.

While Hill's case was pending on appeal to this Court, the Supreme Court decided Wilkins v. Gaddy, 559 U.S. 34, 130 S.Ct. 1175, 175 L.Ed.2d 995 (2010), holding that there is no de minimis injury threshold for an excessive force claim, specifically rejecting the Fourth Circuit's approach in Norman. In light of Wilkins, this Court vacated the district court's dismissal of Hill's excessive force claims and remanded the case to the district court. See Hill v. O'Brien, 387 F.App'x 396 (4th Cir. 2010) (unpublished); (J.A. 86-87).

On remand, Crum filed motions to dismiss and for summary judgment on several grounds, including that he was entitled to qualified immunity. The district court ruled that Crum was not entitled to qualified immunity because a trier of fact could conclude that Hill's Eighth Amendment rights had been violated. Crum answered Hill's complaint, denied liability, and again moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, which was again denied based on the same rationale that it " cannot credibly be claimed that Defendants were not on notice that unnecessarily inflicting pain on the Plaintiff violated his constitutional rights." (J.A. 136). Hill obtained counsel and the case proceeded to trial by jury.

At trial, Crum moved pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) for judgment as a matter of law at the close of Hill's case and again at the close of all the evidence on the basis of qualified immunity. The district court denied both motions, and the jury returned a verdict in Hill's favor, finding Crum liable and awarding $25,000 in damages. (J.A. 207). After trial, Crum moved for a new trial under Rule 59(a) and again for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b) on the ground of qualified immunity, arguing that his conduct did not violate a clearly established constitutional right under Norman at the time of the alleged assault.

The district court granted Crum's motion for a new trial on all issues, stating that " $25,000 in compensatory damages for a bruised rib and an impermanent headache simply shocks the conscience of the Court. It is a miscarriage of justice that cannot stand." 7 (J.A. 227, 233).

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Although granting the new trial motion, the district court denied Crum's motion for judgment as a matter of law on the issue of qualified immunity, again stating that " [i]t is apparent--and cannot be credibly denied--that a reasonable officer in Crum's position in 2007 would have known that repeatedly punching a restrained prisoner in the stomach, ribs, and head for a sustained period, for no other reason but to punish him for a behavioral issue, was unlawful in light of pre-existing law." (J.A. 225). As with its earlier rulings, the district court cited no authority for its decision. Crum timely appealed the denial of his Rule 50(b) motion.8

28 U.S.C. § 1291 affords this Court jurisdiction over final orders of the district court. Pursuant to § 1291, the Court has jurisdiction to hear the appeal of the denial of a qualified immunity defense, before there is a final order, if the denial rests on a legal issue. Valladares v. Cordero, 552 F.3d 384, 387-88 (4th Cir. 2009). If, however, the appeal presents an issue of the insufficiency of the evidence to raise a genuine issue of material fact, this Court does not have jurisdiction under § 1291 to consider such a claim. Bailey v. Kennedy, 349 F.3d 731, 738 (4th Cir. 2003); see Johnson v. Jones, 515 U.S. 304, 319-20, 115 S.Ct. 2151, 132 L.Ed.2d 238 (1995) (" [A] defendant, entitled to invoke a qualified immunity defense, may not appeal a district court's summary judgment order insofar as that order determines whether or not the pre-trial record sets forth a 'genuine' issue of fact for trial." ). We do possess jurisdiction to consider this appeal from the denial of qualified immunity to the extent that Crum claims that his conduct did not violate clearly established law. See Winfield v. Bass, 106 F.3d 525, 530 (4th Cir. 1997) (en banc) (" [W]e have jurisdiction over a claim that there was no violation of clearly established law accepting the facts as the district court viewed them." ). Because the district court's rejection of Crum's qualified immunity defense turns only on a question of law, it is subject to immediate appeal. Valladares, 552 F.3d at 387-88.

II. Legal Background

The Supreme Court has extended the application of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against " cruel and unusual punishments" to the treatment of prisoners by prison officials. In this context, the Court has stated that the Eighth Amendment forbids " the unnecessary and...

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