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Sears v. Roberts

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

April 24, 2019

TERRY EUGENE SEARS, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
VERNIA ROBERTS, F. DEXTER, DAVID PRINCE, JEFFREY HART, Defendants-Appellees.

          Appeal from the United States District Court No. 8:12-cv-00288-VMC-TGW for the Middle District of Florida

          Before ED CARNES, Chief Judge, MARTIN, and ANDERSON, Circuit Judges.

          ED CARNES, CHIEF JUDGE

         Terry Eugene Sears is a Florida inmate who claims that three correctional officers physically assaulted him and that one of them sprayed a chemical agent on him for 16 minutes after he was handcuffed and compliant. He also claims that three supervisory officers watched the attack without doing anything to intervene. This is Sears' appeal from the district court's grant of summary judgment to the correctional officers on his 42 U.S.C. § 1983 excessive force and deliberate indifference claims. The district court's misreading of our decision in O'Bryant v. Finch, 637 F.3d 1207 (11th Cir. 2011), led it to limit the evidence from Sears that it considered and to credit the defendants' version of events over Sears' sworn allegations. We vacate the judgment and remand for further proceedings.

         I.

         This appeal arises from events that occurred at the Polk Correctional Institution in Polk City, Florida. Because of the procedural posture of the case, we view all the evidence in the light most favorable to Sears and will assume that the facts he alleged in his verified complaint, sworn response, and affidavit are true. See Hamilton v. Southland Christian Sch., Inc., 680 F.3d 1316, 1318 (11th Cir. 2012).

         A.

         On the morning of March 18, 2010, Sears was inside his prison dormitory when he was approached by Robert Dees, a correctional officer. Sears ignored Dees' attempt to make conversation and refused his order to submit to a pat-down search. As Sears started to leave the dormitory, Dees reached out and grabbed him by the shoulder. Sears "snatched away" and told Dees not to touch him. Dees again grabbed Sears and verbally threatened him, letting go only when another officer intervened.

         Once free from Dees' grip, Sears left the dormitory and went to Colonel Vernia Roberts' office to complain about Dees. When Roberts refused to see him because he didn't have a pass, Sears headed outside to talk to Captain Felishia Dexter, who had just exited another dormitory. While Sears was telling her about what Dees had done, Officers Dwight Smith and Steven Plough approached and said that they had received a radio call from Dees about Sears. Sears told them that Dees was just retaliating against him.

         Smith and Plough tried to handcuff Sears, but Sears resisted and, in his words, "refused to allow myself to be handcuffed." At this point, Sergeant David Prince arrived on scene and began spraying Sears in the face with a chemical agent. Then Smith and Plough "slammed" Sears to the ground and handcuffed his hands behind his back. While Sears was restrained in that way, Smith began punching him in the back of his head and on the side of his face, and Plough grabbed Sears around the neck and choked him. Sears cried out that he couldn't breathe. Through it all Prince kept spraying Sears in the face with the chemical agent.

         While Sears was still lying on the ground handcuffed, Smith stood on Sears' right leg, shackled his ankles, and repeatedly pushed his face into the dirt. Plough then punched Sears several times in the ribs and kicked him in the back. Finally, Smith and Plough lifted Sears to his feet, and Prince began spraying him in the face with a second canister of chemical agent. Sears swears that the whole physical altercation lasted for about 16 minutes. He also swears that during the entire time Dexter, Roberts, and Lieutenant Jeffrey Hart watched and did nothing to help.

         After the correctional officers had finished spraying and hitting Sears, Plough and Smith escorted him to the medical building, and Roberts and Hart followed. Prince unlocked the rear door of the building and turned to Sears and sucker-punched him in the face. Sears fell to the ground and nearly lost consciousness. Prince continued to assault Sears while he was on the ground, kicking him in the buttocks and stepping on his legs. Smith then slapped Sears twice in the face, and then asked if he was alright. Sears cried out for help from Roberts, and he then attempted to shield himself from further blows by hiding his face in his hands.

         When the assault finally ended, Sears was sent to the showers to wash off the chemical spray. As a result of the beating, he was left with a black-eye, blurred vision, blisters and burning sensations on his face, a busted lip, knots on his head and right knee, swelling in his wrists, ankles, and face, pain in his ribcage and abdomen, skinned knees, a broken dental plate, and many scrapes and bruises. Later that same day, he reported that he was having a "psychological emergency" and threatened to commit suicide. He was placed in an isolation cell for a week.

         B.

         After the altercation, Prince and Dees filed prison disciplinary reports against Sears. Dees charged Sears with disobeying an order by refusing to submit to being handcuffed, and Prince charged him with battery or attempted battery of a correctional officer. Prince stated in his disciplinary report that Sears had refused to comply with repeated orders to submit to being handcuffed and that when Sears "snatched away" from his grip, Prince had "administered an approximate one second burst of chemical agent to Sears' facial area." Prince also reported that once he did that, Sears "charged towards [him] and began striking [him] in the head and shoulder area with his fists" before the other officers subdued Sears and got him handcuffed and shackled.

         Representing himself in the disciplinary hearings, Sears was found guilty by both disciplinary panels. He received 30 days of disciplinary confinement for disobeying orders and 60 days of confinement for the attempted battery. He was also docked 60 days of gain time, though this had no practical effect because of ...


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