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Alton v. Robinson

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Jacksonville Division

October 7, 2019

MICHAEL W. ALTON, JR., [1] Plaintiff,



         I. Status

         Plaintiff Michael W. Alton, Jr., while an inmate of the Florida penal system, [2]initiated this action on November 1, 2017, by filing a pro se Civil Rights Complaint Form (Complaint; Doc. 1). In the Complaint, Alton asserts claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendant Rick Robinson, a Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) sergeant. He states that Robinson violated his Eighth Amendment right when he used excessive force against Alton at Union Correctional Institution (UCI) work camp on November 7, 2016. As relief, Alton seeks compensatory and punitive damages as well as declaratory relief.

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant Robinson's Motion for Summary Judgment (Motion; Doc. 31). Robinson submitted exhibits in support of his summary judgment request. See Def. Exs. (Docs. 31-1 through 31-7).[3] The Court advised Alton of the provisions of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, notified him that the granting of a motion to dismiss or a motion for summary judgment would represent a final adjudication of this case which may foreclose subsequent litigation on the matter, and gave him an opportunity to respond to the Motion. See Order (Doc. 5); Summary Judgment Notice (Doc. 32). Alton responded. See Response and Opposition to Defendant's Summary Judgment (Response; Doc. 36). He also submitted exhibits. See P. Exs. (Docs. 36-1 through 36-8). Defendant's Motion is ripe for review.

         II. Plaintiff's Allegations

         In his Complaint, Alton asserts that he was verbally and physically assaulted twice while housed at the UCI work camp. See Complaint at 5. He states that the FDOC issued two disciplinary reports against him on November 7, 2016, for possessing tobacco and negotiables. See id. He avers that corrections officers escorted him to the lieutenant's office for questioning, and Defendant Robinson later took him to the visiting park's shakedown room where he was verbally reprimanded in an unreasonable manner. See id. According to Alton, Robinson used his open right hand to strike the left side of Alton's face, which forced his head against the wall. See id. He declares that officers escorted him to the UCI medical unit where they asked health-related questions. See id. at 6. Alton recounts that he “was afraid to state facts or answer any questions due to possible retaliation from escorting officers.” Id. He asserts that he instead wrote to his fiancé (Ms. Baumberger) and explained that Robinson had assaulted him. Id. He states that the FDOC housed him in a confinement dormitory at the UCI Main Unit where Robinson stopped by Alton's cell on November 22nd and stated “quit talking sh[*]t back here or else.” Id.

         According to Alton, officers escorted him to a follow-up medical appointment on November 23rd, as a result of Baumberger's phone call. See id. He asserts that the FDOC released him from the UCI confinement unit and returned him to Robinson's shift at the UCI work camp on December 1, 2016. See id. Alton recounts that when he arrived, officers directed him to report to the main laundry building to receive his personal property. See id. He recalls that he noticed Robinson through a glass partition as he entered the dark, unlit building. See id. According to Alton, as he opened the door and partially entered, an “unknown individual” struck him on the left side of his face. Id. He states that the darkness hindered his ability to identify his attacker. See id. He avers that he “instantly retreated” from the incident. Id. Alton believes that Robinson was either the one who assaulted him or a facilitator in the assault. See id. Alton declares that the FDOC should not have returned him to the work camp. See id. at 7. According to Alton, he spoke with Inspector Kevin Snow, who took a recorded statement and assured Alton that he would try to retrieve the relevant camera footage.

         III. Summary Judgment Standard

         Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Rules(s)), “[t]he court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The record to be considered on a motion for summary judgment may include “depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A).[4] An issue is genuine when the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in favor of the non-moving party. Mize v. Jefferson City Bd. of Educ., 93 F.3d 739, 742 (11th Cir. 1996) (quoting Hairston v. Gainesville Sun Publ'g Co., 9 F.3d 913, 919 (11th Cir. 1993)). “[A] mere scintilla of evidence in support of the non-moving party's position is insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment.” Kesinger ex rel. Estate of Kesinger v. Herrington, 381 F.3d 1243, 1247 (11th Cir. 2004) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986)).

         The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of demonstrating to the court, by reference to the record, that there are no genuine issues of material fact to be determined at trial. See Clark v. Coats & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir. 1991). “When a moving party has discharged its burden, the non-moving party must then go beyond the pleadings, and by its own affidavits, or by depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Jeffery v. Sarasota White Sox, Inc., 64 F.3d 590, 593-94 (11th Cir. 1995) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Substantive law determines the materiality of facts, and “[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, a court “must view all evidence and make all reasonable inferences in favor of the party opposing summary judgment.” Haves v. City of Miami, 52 F.3d 918, 921 (11th Cir. 1995) (citing Dibrell Bros. Int'l, S.A. v. Banca Nazionale Del Lavoro, 38 F.3d 1571, 1578 (11th Cir. 1994)).

         IV. Summary of the Arguments

         In the Motion, Defendant Robinson asserts that there are no genuine issues of material fact, and therefore, the Court should grant summary judgment in his favor. He states that no reasonable jury could find in Alton's favor, and therefore, the Motion should be granted as to Alton's Eighth Amendment claim. See Motion at 6-9. He also maintains that he is entitled to qualified immunity. See id. at 15-16. Additionally, Robinson asserts that Alton is not entitled to compensatory and punitive damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e) because he has not alleged any physical injury resulting from Defendant's acts and/or omissions. See id. at 9-14. Finally, he asserts that the Eleventh Amendment bars Alton's claim for monetary damages against him in his official capacity. See id. at 16-17. In his Response, Alton maintains that Defendant Robinson is not entitled to qualified immunity. See Response at 4-5. He states that he has met the physical-injury requirement in that he suffers hearing loss in the left ear as well as psychological injuries, such as post-traumatic stress and recurring nightmares. See id. at 3, 8.

         V. Law

         A. Eighth Amendment

         To state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must allege that (1) the defendant deprived him of a right secured under the United States Constitution or federal law, and (2) such deprivation occurred under color of state law. Salvato v. Miley, 790 F.3d 1286, 1295 (11th Cir. 2015); Bingham v. Thomas, 654 F.3d 1171, 1175 (11th Cir. 2011) (per curiam) (citation omitted); Richardson v. Johnson, 598 F.3d 734, 737 (11th Cir. 2010) (per curiam) (citations omitted). Additionally, the Eleventh Circuit requires “‘an affirmative causal connection between the official's acts or omissions and the alleged constitutional deprivation' in § 1983 cases.” Rodriguez v. Sec'y, Dep't of Corr., 508 F.3d 611, 625 (11th Cir. 2007) (quoting Zatler v. Wainwright, 802 F.2d 397, 401 (11th Cir. 1986)). In the absence of a federal constitutional deprivation or violation of a federal right, a plaintiff cannot sustain a cause of action against the defendant.

         With respect to the appropriate analysis in an Eighth Amendment excessive use of force case, the Eleventh Circuit has explained.

[O]ur core inquiry is “whether force was applied in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm.” Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 112 S.Ct. 995, 999, 117 L.Ed.2d 156 (1992). In determining whether force was applied maliciously and sadistically, we look to five 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) (quotations omitted).

McKinney v. Sheriff, 520 Fed.Appx. 903, 905 (11th Cir. 2013) (per curiam). “When considering these factors, [courts] ‘give a wide range of deference to prison officials acting to preserve discipline and security, including when considering decisions made at the scene of a disturbance.'” Fennell v. Gilstrap, 559 F.3d 1212, 1217 (11th Cir. 2009) (per curiam) (quoting Cockrell v. Sparks, 510 F.3d 1307, 1311 (11th Cir. 2007)).

         “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.” Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 9-10 (1992) (internal quotations and citations omitted). “A prisoner may avoid summary judgment, ‘only if the evidence viewed in the light most favorable to him goes beyond a mere dispute over the reasonableness of the force used and will support a reliable inference of wantonness in the infliction of pain.'” Stallworth v. Tyson, 578 Fed.Appx. 948, 953 (11th Cir. 2014) (quoting Brown v. Smith, 813 F.2d 1187, 1188 (11th Cir. 1987)). Notably, a lack of serious injury is relevant to the Eighth Amendment inquiry. See Smith v. Sec'y, Dep't of Corr., 524 Fed.Appx. 511, 513 (11th Cir. 2013) (per curiam) (quoting Wilkins v. Gaddy, 559 U.S. 34, 38 (2010) (per curiam)). The United States Supreme Court explained.

“[T]he extent of injury suffered by an inmate is one factor that may suggest ‘whether the use of force could plausibly have been thought necessary' in a particular situation.” Ibid.[5] ] (quoting Whitley, supra, at 321, 106 S.Ct. 1078).[6] The extent of injury may also provide some indication of the amount of force applied. As we stated in Hudson, not “every malevolent touch by a prison guard gives rise to a federal cause of action.” 503 U.S. at 9, 112 S.Ct. 995.... An inmate who complains of a “‘push or shove'” that causes no discernible injury almost certainly fails to state a valid excessive force claim. Id., at 9 (quoting Johnson v. Glick, 481 F.2d 1028, 1033 (2d Cir. 1973)).[7]
Injury and force, however, are only imperfectly correlated, and it is the latter that ultimately counts. An inmate who is gratuitously beaten by guards does not lose his ability to pursue an excessive force claim merely because he has the good fortune to escape without serious injury.

Wilkins, 559 U.S. at 37-38.

         B. ...

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