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Brooks v. Johnson

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

May 10, 2019

ALTONY BROOKS, Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
LIEUTENANT JOHNSON; CAPTAIN JACUMIN; OFFICER FLUDD, Defendants - Appellees, and HILL FINKLEA DETENTION CENTER; OFFICER JOHN DOE; NURSE JOHN DOE; OFFICER JOHN DOE; OFFICER GREENE; OFFICER JOHNSON; BERKELEY COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE, Defendants. ALTONY BROOKS, Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
LIEUTENANT JOHNSON; CAPTAIN JACUMIN; OFFICER FLUDD, Defendants - Appellees, and HILL FINKLEA DETENTION CENTER; OFFICER JOHN DOE; NURSE JOHN DOE; OFFICER JOHN DOE; OFFICER GREENE; OFFICER JOHNSON; BERKELEY COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE, Defendants.

          Argued: December 11, 2018

          Appeals from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, at Beaufort. Patrick Michael Duffy, Senior District Judge. (9:15-cv-2677-PMD-BM)

         ARGUED:

          C. Daniel Lockaby, UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA SCHOOL OF LAW, Athens, Georgia, for Appellant.

          Kevin Michael DeAntonio, SENN LEGAL, LLC, Charleston, South Carolina, for Appellees.

         ON BRIEF:

          Thomas V. Burch, Cary Berkeley Kaye, Wade Barron, Student Counsel, Sarah Quattrocchi, Student Counsel, Appellate

          Litigation Clinic, UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA SCHOOL OF LAW, Athens, Georgia, for Appellant. Christopher T. Dorsel, SENN LEGAL, LLC, Charleston, South Carolina, for Appellees.

          Before KEENAN, WYNN, and HARRIS, Circuit Judges.

          PAMELA HARRIS, Circuit Judge.

         A prison official deployed a taser three times against Altony Brooks when Brooks refused to hold still for an identification photograph. Brooks filed an Eighth Amendment excessive force suit, and the district court granted summary judgment against him, finding it beyond genuine dispute that the officer had applied force in a good faith effort to obtain Brooks's photograph.

         We disagree. The critical Eighth Amendment question in this case is one of motive: whether the corrections officer shocked Brooks three times "in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline," or "maliciously" and "for the very purpose of causing harm," Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 320-21 (1986) (internal quotation marks omitted). Viewing the record in the light most favorable to Brooks, as we must, we think a reasonable jury could find that the officer used multiple shocks not to induce Brooks's cooperation, but to punish him for his intransigence through the "wanton infliction of pain," id. at 320. Accordingly, we vacate the grant of summary judgment and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I.

         A.

         Apart from the critical question of motive, the facts relevant to this appeal are largely undisputed. Indeed, much of the key incident is captured on soundless video footage, which we have reviewed carefully. Except where we attribute an allegation to a particular party, the following account is not contested.

         The use of force in question occurred in 2013, when Altony Brooks was serving a prison sentence with the South Carolina Department of Corrections. On September 17 of that year, Brooks was transported to the Hill-Finklea Detention Center for a one-night stay, so that he could attend a nearby court appearance the next morning. From the time of his arrival, Detention Center officers reported, Brooks was "very disrespectful[] and uncooperative," "continuously threaten[ing] to sue the officers for anything he didn't like." J.A. 681-82 (contemporaneous incident report filed by corrections officer) ("Incident Report").

         Detention Center policy requires that an identification photograph be taken whenever an inmate enters the facility. According to corrections officers, Brooks would not cooperate with their efforts to photograph him when he began his stay on September 17. The officers tried a second time the following afternoon, before Brooks's scheduled return to his permanent correctional facility. Brooks once again refused to cooperate, and the result was the episode at issue in this appeal.

         This time, instead of forgoing the picture, Detention Center officers escorted Brooks to the booking area that housed the photography equipment. From this point on, Brooks was in handcuffs and held by two or more officers while additional officers closely flanked him; the total number of officers on the scene grew from five to six as events unfolded. According to the officers, this did not stop Brooks from using "aggressive" language and verbally threatening at least some of those present. See J.A. 689 (affidavit of defendant Captain Jacumin) ("Jacumin Affidavit"); see also Incident Report, J.A. 681 (describing Brooks as "making threats to the officers"). Brooks denies threatening the officers, but his own account includes what could be described as "aggressive" verbal resistance. See J.A. 28 ("I advised that I was sovereign and I'm not taking any pictures. . . . I stated . . . that I was already false[ly] imprisoned and I'm not giving them no picture."). The soundless video cannot resolve inconsistencies on this point, and so we take the view more favorable to Brooks, as the party opposing summary judgment. See Henry v. Purnell, 652 F.3d 524, 527 (4th Cir. 2011) (en banc).

         The start of the video shows a substantial period of time - roughly seven and a half minutes - during which the officers appear to be "attempting to convince [Brooks] to let them take his picture," Brooks v. Jacumin, No. 9:15-cv-2677-PMD-BM, 2017 WL 3307648, at *3 (D.S.C. Aug. 3, 2017), consistent with the officers' own account, see Incident Report, J.A. 681 (referring to "several minutes of trying to reason with inmate Brooks"). But as the district court explains, it is clear from the video that Brooks continues to resist having his photograph taken, by "moving his head repeatedly to prevent a clear picture." Brooks, 2017 WL 3307648, at *1. This, too, is roughly consistent with the accounts of both Brooks and the officers involved. See Complaint, J.A. 28 ("I refused and turned my head repeatedly"); Jacumin Affidavit, J.A. 688 ("Brooks refused to allow [the officers] to take his picture by bending over out of the camera view and hiding his face.").

         After this seven-and-a-half-minute period, the video shows one of the officers - Sergeant Sheila Johnston - pointing a taser gun at Brooks while two other officers hold Brooks in place. Though the record does not establish precisely what Johnston said, the parties agree, in substance, that Johnston warned Brooks that she would deploy the taser if he did not cooperate. See Complaint, J.A. 28 ("if you move again I'll taze you"); Jacumin Affidavit, J.A. 689 ("Johnston warned [Brooks] that she would tase him if he did not stop."). Approximately ten seconds later, when Brooks continued to move around, Johnston deployed the taser for the first time, hitting Brooks in the leg. As the district court describes, Brooks "fell to the ground, writhed and kicked for approximately five seconds, and ultimately laid still." Brooks, 2017 WL 3307648, at *3.

         While lying on the ground, Brooks was well outside the camera's frame, so his photograph could not be taken. Roughly 16 seconds after the first shock, while Brooks remained on the ground with two officers standing over him, Johnston deployed the taser for the second time. On the video, Brooks appears to thrash in pain. Two officers then brought Brooks to his feet, so that his head again was in camera range, and the officers tried once more to take his photograph.

         Brooks, held by the officers, continued to move instead of holding still for the camera, though the parties dispute whether Brooks's movements were continued resistance, see Incident Report, J.A. 682 (Brooks "continued to . . . struggle with the officers"), or an involuntary response to the two taser shocks already administered, see Complaint, J.A. 29 (Brooks "tried to stay still"). Approximately 45 seconds after Brooks was pulled upright by the officers, Johnston deployed her taser for the third time. This time, the officers caught Brooks as he fell. The video concludes shortly thereafter, but the parties agree that the officers then were able to take Brooks's photograph.

         Brooks alleges that he has experienced knee pain ever since the incident, and an MRI taken two years later revealed a kneecap irregularity and a possibly torn meniscus that he attributes to the use of force against him.

         B.

         Brooks, proceeding pro se - that is, without the assistance of counsel - filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Johnston and several other officers present during the incident. As relevant here, Brooks alleged that the corrections officers used excessive force in violation of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits the infliction of "cruel and unusual punishments," U.S. Const. amend. VIII.

         Two procedural issues arose in the early stages of Brooks's case. First, several months after Brooks filed his complaint, the district court dismissed Sergeant Johnston - the officer who deployed the taser - as a defendant in the case because Brooks had not properly served her during the 120-day period allowed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(m).[1] Brooks's complaint had misidentified Johnston, who is a sergeant, as a lieutenant, and misspelled her name as "Johnson," dropping the "t." As a result, the United States Marshals Service, which often effects service on behalf of prisoners like Brooks, see 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d), was unable to serve process on Johnston. Brooks made multiple efforts to advise the Marshals and the court of his initial error in identifying Johnston, sending the Marshals a letter with a corrected name and title and advising the court that he had run out of service forms and needed its assistance. A magistrate judge nevertheless recommended dismissing Johnston from the case, and the district court adopted that recommendation, finding that Brooks had not shown "good cause" for his failure to serve Johnston. J.A. 449.

         Johnston's dismissal left just two corrections officers as the defendants for Brooks's Eighth Amendment claim: Captain Kris Jacumin and Officer Selisa Fludd, who were present during the incident but did not themselves deploy the taser.[2] The case proceeded to discovery, at which point the second preliminary issue arose: a dispute over production of the Detention Center's use-of-force policies. When Brooks requested copies of those policies, the defendants objected, arguing that production would raise security concerns. The magistrate judge denied ...


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