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Sconiers v. FNU Lockhart

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

January 7, 2020

KIRSTIN SCONIERS, Plaintiff - Appellant,
FNU LOCKHART, Marion County Sheriff's Correction Officer, individually and in his official capacity, MATTHEW B. MCNEELY, Sargent, Marion County Sheriff's Office, Defendants - Appellees.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida D.C. Docket No. 5:14-cv-00237-WTH-PRL

          Before WILLIAM PRYOR and ROSENBAUM, Circuit Judges, and Moore, [*] District Judge.

          ROSENBAUM, Circuit Judge:

         Some things are never acceptable, no matter the circumstances. Sexual abuse is one.

         Sexual abuse "has no legitimate penological purpose, and is simply not part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society." Graham v. Sheriff of Logan Cty., 741 F.3d 1118, 1122-23 (10th Cir. 2013) (citation and quotation marks omitted). Nor does it comport with contemporary standards of decency. Congress itself implicitly recognized as much in 2013, when it amended the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA") to allow prisoners to recover damages "for mental or emotional injury suffered while in custody[, ] without a prior showing of physical injury," when the prisoner can demonstrate "the commission of a sexual act" as the basis for the damages he seeks. See 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e) (2013).

         As the Supreme Court clarified in Wilkins v. Gaddy, 559 U.S. 34, 37 (2010), a correctional officer's malicious and sadistic actions that both have no legitimate penological purpose and are unacceptable by contemporary standards of decency subject a prisoner to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment. This case requires us to evaluate Boxer X v. Harris, 437 F.3d 1107 (11th Cir. 2006), our pre-Wilkins prisoner-sexual-abuse precedent for continuing viability. When we do so, we must conclude that Wilkins (particularly as construed in light of the 2013 amendments to the PLRA) partially abrogated Boxer X.

         Here, the district court relied on Boxer X to dismiss Plaintiff-Appellant prisoner Kirstin Sconiers's claims that, during a purported disciplinary encounter with Defendant-Appellee Jesse Lockhart, Lockhart pulled down Sconiers's pants and forcefully penetrated Sconiers's anus with his finger. Because we conclude that Boxer X has been abrogated in part, and because Sconiers has presented sufficient evidence on summary judgment to establish both parts of a post-Wilkins Eighth Amendment claim, we now vacate the portion of the district court's grant of summary judgment to Lockhart that relied on the abrogated holding of Boxer X. We also review the rest of the district court's order granting summary judgment against Sconiers. After careful consideration, we vacate and remand in part and affirm in part.


         Sconiers was imprisoned at the Marion County Jail, where he was serving a sentence for a misdemeanor conviction for exposing his sexual organs. On February 12, 2014, Sconiers met with his attorney via videoconference at the jail. After the meeting ended, Lockhart arrived to escort Sconiers back to his cell.

         Based on events that followed, Sconiers, then proceeding pro se, filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Lockhart and Matthew B. McNeely, [1] both correctional officers at the jail. He alleged the defendants violated his Eighth Amendment right through the use of excessive force and sexual assault. During the litigation, Lockhart and McNeely filed motions for summary judgment. After considering them, the district court entered summary judgment for both defendants. Sconiers, now represented, appeals.

         For purposes of our review of the district court's entry of summary judgment, we accept Sconiers's version of the facts as true, affording all justifiable inferences to Sconiers. See Pourmoghani-Esfahani v. Gee, 625 F.3d 1313, 1315 (11th Cir. 2010) (per curiam). Whether Sconiers can establish that the defendants did what he alleges is something he must prove to a jury if his case survives summary judgment. So we set forth here only Sconiers's side of the story.

         We pick up the facts when Lockhart came on the scene to return Sconiers to his cell. Under Sconiers's version of the facts, after his meeting with his attorney ended, Sconiers stood to return to his cell. Lockhart instructed Sconiers to sit back down, and he complied. Then Lockhart ordered him back on his feet. Once Sconiers again stood, Lockhart again told him to sit. And after he sat, Lockhart once again told him to stand.

         Fed up, Sconiers asked Lockhart, "What kind of games are you playing?" In response, Lockhart allegedly pepper-sprayed Sconiers in the face twice, slammed him to the ground, and slapped his face, all while Sconiers was shackled by hand restraints, leg irons, and wrist restraints. Sconiers alleged Lockhart then drove his knee into Sconiers's back and pulled Sconiers's pants down.

         Once Lockhart had Sconiers on the ground and his pants down, Sconiers claimed, Lockhart forcefully penetrated Sconiers's anus with his finger. Lockhart was able to do this because Sconiers was not wearing underwear.

         After the dust settled, the Marion County Sheriff's Office launched an investigation. Sconiers gave investigators basically the same version of facts that he set forth in this case. He further explained to the Sheriff's Office investigators that he hesitated before telling others about Lockhart's sexual assault because it embarrassed him and because he assumed the jail administrators were in league with the guards.

         After interviewing all those with knowledge of the incident, the Sheriff's Office investigators concluded, as relevant here, that Sconiers's claims were unfounded and that Sconiers himself had engaged in misconduct by failing to comply with Lockhart's commands. Based on this finding, prosecutors charged Sconiers with non-violently resisting Lockhart's instructions. Sconiers eventually pled guilty to this charge.

         In the meantime, though, Sconiers sought medical attention for his injuries and recounted his donnybrook with Lockhart in an incident report. In that report, Sconiers stated that Lockhart's digital penetration caused him anal pain for two weeks. In particular, Sconiers complained that as a result of the incident, his anus stung when he had bowel movements, and he noticed blood on his toilet paper when he used the bathroom. Treatment notes reflect that Sconiers told medical staff an officer had put his finger up his anus and that his anus had been sore as a result. He explained that he had not reported the alleged assault earlier because he had been on suicide watch and "didn't trust telling anyone [his] situation . . . ." Dr. Jaime Rubios conducted a rectal exam and found that Sconiers had "very small . . . ext[ernal] hemorrhoids" that did not appear to be bleeding or tender.

         A few months after the events of February 12, 2014, Sconiers commenced this suit. He filed a pro se complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In his most recent version of his complaint, Sconiers asserted that Lockhart violated the Eighth Amendment by engaging in excessive force.

         Lockhart eventually sought summary judgment on Sconiers's claims. The district court granted his motion. In constructing the facts underlying the sexual-assault claim, the district court found that "all of the evidence [shows] that [Sconiers] was fully clothed at all times during the encounter . . . ." Based on that conclusion, the district court reasoned that Lockhart's penetration of Sconiers's anus was "necessarily" inhibited by Sconiers's clothing since it did "not involve-body-to-body contact."

         Turning to the law, the district court relied upon our decision in Boxer X to find that those facts "simply do not" violate the Eighth Amendment. It based this conclusion on the alternative grounds that both the force used and the injury caused by Lockhart's supposed over-the-pants penetration were de minimis.

         On the issues of whether Lockhart's pepper-spraying and takedown constituted excessive force, the district court first considered Lockhart's use of pepper spray. It noted that Sconiers attested in an affidavit that he complied with Lockhart's initial order to sit, but Lockhart ordered him to sit down three more times. The district court construed this allegation to mean that Sconiers implicitly admitted he defied Lockhart by remaining standing, or Lockhart would not have had reason to tell him to sit down three times while he was already sitting. The court then further reasoned that had Sconiers not flouted Lockhart's instructions, Lockhart would not have had to pepper-spray him.

         Moving on to Lockhart's takedown of Sconiers, the district court concluded that Sconiers had changed his story because his first affidavit had claimed that Lockhart "force[d]" him to the floor, not "slammed" him there as he had alleged in his other affidavits. The district court then found that "forc[ing]" an inmate to the ground did not constitute excessive force under the circumstances. In particular, the court determined that Lockhart was justified in engaging in this action because he needed to restore order after pepper-spraying Sconiers. So the district court granted summary judgment on this aspect of Sconiers's Eighth Amendment claim as well.

         Sconiers now appeals.


         We review de novo the district court's grant of summary judgment, viewing all facts and drawing all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. McCullum v. Orlando Reg'l Healthcare Sys., Inc., 768 F.3d 1135, 1141 (11th Cir. 2014). In conducting our analysis in subsection III. A. below of the district court's order, we further discuss the standards district courts must apply in resolving motions for summary judgment.

         Because Sconiers proceeded pro se in the district court, we liberally construe his pleadings. Trawinski v. United Techs., 313 F.3d 1295, 1297 (11th Cir. 2002) (per curiam). We also credit the "specific facts" pled in Sconiers's sworn complaint when considering his opposition to summary judgment. Perry v. Thompson, 786 F.2d 1093, 1095 (11th Cir. 1986) (per curiam) ("Plaintiff alleged specific facts in his sworn complaint and they were required to be considered in their sworn form.").


         On appeal, Sconiers, now counseled, raises two categories of issues. He contends the district court erred when it (1) allegedly resolved material issues of fact to enter summary judgment for Lockhart and (2) applied Boxer X v. Harris, 437 F.3d 1107 (11th Cir. 2006), to dismiss his sexual-assault claim. Lockhart responds by raising a threshold defense. He contends that Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), imposes an unconquerable barrier to Sconiers's claims arising out of the pepper-spraying and takedown ...

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