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Heyward-Jones v. Reid

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Savannah Division

September 10, 2019

OFFICER REID, et. al. Defendants.



         Kevon Heyward-Jones, proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, brings this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Complaint against Officer Reid, of the Chatham County Sheriff's Office, Sheriff John Wilcher, and the Chatham County Sheriff's Office. Doc. 1. The Court granted plaintiff's Motion for Leave to proceed in forma pauperis (IFP), doc. 3, and he has provided all requested documentation, docs. 4-6. The Court now screens the Complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A.[1]


         In February 2019, defendant Officer Reid entered plaintiff's cell at the Chatham County Jail while plaintiff was undressed. Doc. 1 at 5. Officer Reid “squeezed [plaintiff's] backside in a sexual manner.” Id. Plaintiff objected to the touching and was pushed to the ground, injuring his back and left elbow. Id. Officer Reid then made “threatening remarks” as he exited the cell. Id. Plaintiff reported the incident through the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) process and to jail officials more senior than Officer Reid. Id. Five days after the incident, Officer Reid was again working in the same area of the jail as plaintiff.[2] Id. at 5-6. Plaintiff alleges that he has been traumatized by the situation, showers in his underwear and refuses to eat food provided by the jail. Id. at 6. Liberally construing plaintiff's complaint, he brings claims for violations The Court applies Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) standards in screening a complaint pursuant to § 1915A, Leal v. Ga. Dep't of Corr., 254 F.3d 1276, 1278-79 (11th Cir. 2001). In doing so, allegations in plaintiff's Complaint are taken as true and construed in the light most favorable to him. Bumpus v. Watts, 448 Fed.Appx. 3, 4 n.1 (11th Cir. 2011). Conclusory allegations alone, however, are not sufficient. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (discussing a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal). of the Eighth Amendment against Officer Reid and failure to protect against Sheriff John Wilcher and the Chatham County Sheriff's Office.


         I. Officer Reid

         Sexual abuse of an inmate by corrections officials can be cognizable under § 1983 as a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Boxer X v. Harris, 437 F.3d 1107, 1111 (11th Cir. 2006); see also Boddie v. Schnieder, 105 F.3d 857, 860-61 (2d Cir. 1997). (“[S]exual abuse of a prisoner by a corrections officer has no legitimate penological purpose, and is simply not part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society.”). This requires both an objective element-“that the injury be objectively, sufficiently serious”-and a subjective element- that “the prison official have a sufficiently culpable state of mind.” Boxer X, 437 F.3d at 1111 (internal quotations and citations omitted). Though the subjective element-a culpable state of mind-can be inferred from the alleged sexual conduct, plaintiff has failed to adequately allege an “objectively, sufficiently serious” injury. See Allen v. McDonough, 2011 WL 4102525 *5 (N.D. Fla. Aug. 17, 2011) (“The culpable state of mind of the corrections officer, the second component, may be inferred from the act of sexual abuse . . . .”). An “objectively, sufficiently serious” injury must be more than de minimis. Boxer X, 437 F.3d at 1111 (a female corrections officer's solicitation of a male prisoner's manual masturbation, even under the threat of reprisal, does not present more than de minimis injury); see also Brown v. Smith, 2006 WL 1890192 *5 (M.D. Ga. July 10, 2006) (repeated touching of an inmate's genitals and forced sexual intercourse with corrections officers was deemed objectively, sufficiently serious).

         The objectively, sufficiently serious standard typically requires more than an isolated incident of non-severe sexual harassment. See Washington v. Harris, 186 Fed.Appx. 865, 866 (11th Cir. 2006) (allegations of momentary pain, “psychological injury, ” embarrassment, humiliation, and fear due to an officer's inappropriate touching were de minimis injuries); Mathager v. Coleman, 2012 WL 2872644 *3 (S.D. Ga. June 15, 2012) (recommending dismissal of a sexual abuse claim resulting from a corrections official's single request for a sexual act, which was refused by the plaintiff); Boddie, 105 F.3d at 861 (“isolated episodes of harassment and touching . . . do not involve a harm of federal constitutional proportions”). Plaintiff has alleged only a single incident of unwanted touching and threatening language. Doc. 1 at 5. Though he has alleged that the incident has left him afraid, he has not suggested a continuing threat of a similar assault. Doc. 1 at 6. As such, the claim of sexual assault does not rise to the level of a Constitutional violation cognizable under § 1983 and should be DISMISSED.

         Liberally construed, plaintiff's Complaint also alleges an excessive use of force claim against Officer Reid. In a custodial setting, the use of force is legitimate when applied “in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline [and not] maliciously and sadistically to cause harm.” Skritch v. Thornton, 280 F.3d 1295, 1300 (11th Cir. 2002). Not every malevolent touch by a corrections officer offends the Eighth Amendment, however, “when prison officials maliciously and sadistically use force to cause harm, contemporary standards of decency always are violated.” Hudson v. McMillan, 503 U.S. 1, 9 (1992) To determine whether force was applied “maliciously and sadistically, ” courts consider the following 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.” Campbell v. Sikes, 169 F.3d 1353, 1375 (11th Cir. 1999).

         Officer Reid pushed plaintiff to the ground, causing unspecified injuries to his back and left elbow. Doc. 1 at 5. Typically, a push or shove that does not result in a discernable injury does not rise to the level of a Constitutional violation. See Wilkins v. Gaddy, 559 U.S. 34, 38 (2010). The Complaint is vague as to the extent of the injury suffered, but even the allegation of no more than a de minimis injury does not preclude an excessive force claim, as the focus of the Court's consideration is not on the extent of the injury, but, rather, the nature of the force applied. Id. at 39 (noting that the degree of injury is relevant to the extent that it can inform the Court's understanding of if the force was applied maliciously and sadistically to cause harm or in a nontrival way). A de minimis use of force can qualify as excessive if it is “a sort repugnant to the conscience of mankind.” Hudson, at 9-10 (“The Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments necessarily excludes from constitutional recognition de minimis uses of physical force, provided that the use of force is not of a sort repugnant to the conscience of mankind.” (internal quotations omitted)); see, e.g., Stallworth v. Tyson, 578 Fed.Appx. 948, 954 (11th Cir. 2014) (spraying a prisoner through the feeding flap on a cell door in retaliation for filing a grievance could be repugnant to the conscience of mankind.)

         Taking the facts alleged in the Complaint as true, the Court cannot see any good-faith need for the force that was applied. Though plaintiff does concede that he pushed Officer Reid's hand from his body, he was acting in response to an allegedly unlawful and threatening act. Doc. 1 at 5. Furthermore, there is no indication that this resistance presented a threat to Officer Reid's safety or could have been perceived as such. Though it is not possible to discern from the Complaint whether the injuries suffered were more than de minimis, the use of force in furtherance of a sexual assault or to subsequently intimidate the victim is of the “sort repugnant to the conscience of mankind.” More so when the force has no apparent penological purpose. See Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 737 (2002) (“[a]mong unnecessary and wanton inflictions of pain are those that are totally without penological justification.” (internal quotations and citations omitted)). Therefore, the claim of excessive force survives the Court's screening.

         II. Sheriff John Wilcher

         Even liberally construed, plaintiff's failure to protect claim against Sheriff Wilcher fails. Section 1983 claims require an allegation of a causal connection between a defendant's acts or omissions and the alleged constitutional deprivation. See Zalter v. Wainwright, 802 F.2d 397, 401 (11th Cir. 1986) (defendant's position as Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections was not alone sufficient to establish a causal connection to plaintiff's sexual assault). Plaintiff's Complaint suggests, at most, that Sheriff Wilcher was negligent in allowing the alleged sexual assault to occur and subsequently allowing Officer Reid to work near the Plaintiff. Doc. 1 at 5. This alone is not sufficient as theories of respondeat superioror and vicarious liability cannot carry § 1983 claims. See Polk Cnty. v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312, 325 (1981) (“Section 1983 will not support a claim based on a respondeat superior theory of liability.”); Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 691 (1978) (“Congress did not intend municipalities to be held liable unless action pursuant to official municipal policy of some nature caused a constitutional tort.”); Brown v. Crawford, 906 F.2d 667, 671 (11th Cir. 1990) (“Supervisory liability occurs either when the supervisor personally participates in the alleged constitutional violation or when there is a causal connection between actions of the supervising official and the alleged constitutional deprivation.”).

         Government officials, acting in their official capacity can, however, be held liable under § 1983 if they have adopted a policy or custom that directs the unconstitutional deprivation of rights. Brown v. Neumann, 188 F.3d 1289, 1290 (11th Cir. 1999). Plaintiff has not alleged that Sheriff Wilcher was directly responsible for the assignment of jail staff, or even aware of the alleged incident, and he has not alleged that there was a policy or custom that facilitated the ...

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