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Sexton v. Georgia Department of Corrections

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Columbus Division

April 16, 2018

DONNA SEXTON, Plaintiff,
v.
GEORGIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS and SHELAY SMITH, Defendants.

          ORDER

          CLAY D. LAND CHIEF U.S. DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         This action arises from Plaintiff's visit with her son, who was an inmate at Rutledge State Prison (the “Prison”). During the visit, a correctional officer had an altercation with Plaintiff while attempting to enforce the Prison's rules. Plaintiff asserts claims against that correctional officer in the officer's individual capacity under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of her First and Fourth Amendment constitutional rights. The officer has filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting qualified immunity. Because Plaintiff failed to establish that the correctional officer violated her clearly established rights, the officer is entitled to qualified immunity, and her motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 18) is accordingly granted. All of Plaintiff's other claims were dismissed previously when the Court granted Defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings. Order Granting Mot. J. Pleadings 23-24, ECF No. 10.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         At the summary judgment stage, the Court must view the record in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and draw all reasonable factual inferences in her favor when deciding whether a government official is entitled to qualified immunity. Perez v. Suszczynski, 809 F.3d 1213, 1217 (11th Cir. 2016). Therefore, the record considered by the Court is limited to the undisputed facts and the plaintiff's version of the disputed facts. Id. That record establishes the following:

         To address a problem with contraband entering the Prison, the warden implemented new procedures in August 2015 to prevent visitors from passing contraband to inmates. Under the new procedures, visitors were required to empty food purchased from vending machines in the visitation room onto disposable plates and to throw away the wrappers so that correctional officers could better observe what was passed between inmates and visitors.

         Based on reports from informants and his staff, Deputy Warden of Security Darryl Warren believed that inmate Markus Funck was a source of the Prison's contraband problem. He also believed that Funck was expecting a delivery of contraband during the visitation period scheduled for April 22, 2015. Warren Decl. ¶¶ 11 & 12, ECF No. 18-4.[1] Accordingly, Warren informed Defendant Shelay Smith, the correctional officer monitoring the visitation room that day, to keep a close eye on Funck and his visitors.

         Plaintiff arrived at the Prison on April 22 to visit Funck, her son. When Plaintiff entered the visitation room, Smith learned that Plaintiff was visiting Funck and instructed Plaintiff to sit at a table in front of her. Compl. Ex. B, GDC Incident Report-D. Sexton Statement Under Oath, ECF No. 1-1 at 32, 33.[2] While waiting for her son, Plaintiff went to the vending machines, purchased some packages of food, and returned to the table in front of Smith. Id. Another visitor told Plaintiff that a new rule required Plaintiff to open the bags of food and put the items on a plate. Id. Plaintiff said aloud, “[O]kay-would have been nice to have been told that.” Id. Smith responded, “I would have gotten around to it.” Id. Plaintiff then opened one bag of food, and Smith told her to open the other bag as well. Id. When Plaintiff asked whether she could wait to open it until Funck arrived, Smith directed her to go ahead and open the bag. Id. Officers eventually brought Funck to the visitation room.

         Cameras in the visitation room captured the events that unfolded next on video. See generally Def.'s Notice of Physical Filing, Prison Video (Aug. 22, 2015), ECF No. 19 [hereinafter Prison Video]. The video shows Smith sitting behind a table in the back of the visitation room such that she could see the inmates and visitors in front of her. Id. Plaintiff and Funck sat at one of the tables directly in front of Smith. Id. Plaintiff twice left the table to purchase more food from the vending machines. Id. at 10:26:45-10:27:21, 10:27:30-10:28:21; see also GDC Incident Report-Addition to D. Sexton Statement Under Oath, ECF No. 1-1 at 35 [hereinafter D. Sexton Suppl. Statement]; Smith Decl. ¶ 10, ECF No. 18-3. Apparently, Plaintiff brought the food back from the vending machine without opening the packages, emptying the food onto the plate she was using, or discarding the wrappers. See Smith Decl. ¶ 10 (stating that Plaintiff did not put the contents of the food packages on a plate). Some wrappers fell onto the floor, and when Funck picked them up and gave them to Plaintiff, Smith approached their table and told Plaintiff to throw away the wrappers immediately. Smith then returned to her desk while Plaintiff threw away the wrappers. D. Sexton Suppl. Statement; Prison Video 10:28:57-10:29:34. Seeing other visitors were similarly in violation of the rules, Plaintiff “said something to [Smith] about it” on her way back from the trash can. D. Sexton Suppl. Statement.[3]

         Moments later, Smith approached Plaintiff and Funck and terminated their visit. Id. Protesting, Plaintiff stated, “I[‘m] not leaving.” Id.; see also Smith Decl. ¶ 14 (stating that Plaintiff refused to leave). The video shows Plaintiff gesturing to the other tables in the visitation room and repeatedly pointing her fingers at Smith, who is hidden from the camera by a column. Prison Video 10:30:49-10:31:12. Smith then escorted Funck to another room. Smith Decl. ¶ 13. As Smith closed the door behind Funck, Plaintiff got up from the table, tossed a plate of food in Smith's direction, and quickly walked towards the exit. Prison Video 10:31:23-10:31:28; D. Sexton Suppl. Statement; Smith Decl. ¶ 16.[4] Smith followed Plaintiff, and Plaintiff turned towards Smith and raised her right hand in the air as Smith approached her from behind. Prison Video 10:31:26-10:31:28.[5] Smith then grabbed Plaintiff's arms and pushed her against a nearby wall. Id. at 10:31:28-10:31:30. Another correctional officer assisted Smith. Smith Decl. ¶ 21.

         Although the video footage shows the struggle against the wall in the visitation room, it does not clearly depict everything that happened. Plaintiff contends that Smith pushed her to the ground, placed a boot and hand on her, scratched her, and hit her in the face. D. Sexton Suppl. Statement. Smith contends that Plaintiff dropped to the floor and began to scream and to slap and kick Smith. Smith Decl. ¶ 20. Smith also disputes striking Plaintiff. Id. ¶ 24. Although courts are permitted to accept facts that are “clearly depicted” by a video recording, courts must accept the plaintiff's version as true when the video is unclear and there is conflicting evidence on the issue. Shaw v. City of Selma, 884 F.3d 1093, 1097 n.1 (11th Cir. 2018). The Court thus assumes for purposes of this motion that Plaintiff's version of these facts is true.

         As the struggle ensued, Funck re-entered the visitation room and approached Smith from behind. The other correctional officer then turned around and removed Funck from the area. Smith Decl. ¶¶ 22 & 23. Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff and Smith exited the visitation room. The video shows that the encounter between Plaintiff and Smith lasted approximately one and a half minutes from when Smith grabbed Plaintiff until they exited the visitation room. Prison Video 10:31:28-10:33:02. Plaintiff was allowed to leave the Prison. Smith notified law enforcement of the incident and later swore out an arrest warrant for Plaintiff for committing simple battery. Smith Decl. ¶ 30. Plaintiff then brought this action.

         DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff asserts the following § 1983 claims against Smith: (1) false arrest under the Fourth Amendment based on Smith seizing Plaintiff; (2) excessive force under the Fourth Amendment based on the manner in which Smith seized Plaintiff; and (3) retaliation under the First Amendment based on Smith terminating Plaintiff's visit and seizing Plaintiff after Plaintiff commented to Smith about the Prison's procedures. Smith contends that she is entitled to qualified immunity.

         I. ...


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