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Lindsey v. Wertanen

United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Northern Division

April 27, 2018

JAMES LINDSEY #256676, Plaintiff,
RICK WERTANEN, et al., Defendants.



         This is a civil rights action brought by former state prisoner James Lindsey pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff asserts various constitutional and state-law claims against Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) employees Rick Wertanen, Ty Hyatt, and Jody Karppinen. Defendants have moved for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a). (ECF No. 60). Plaintiff has responded. (ECF No. 62). This matter is now ready for decision.

         In 2014, Plaintiff was incarcerated at Baraga Correctional Facility (AMF). On June 12, 2014, Defendant Wertanen announced on the loud speaker that Plaintiff had a dental call out. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Karppinen called Plaintiff a “baby raper” and told him they were going to “get him.” Shortly thereafter, Defendants Wertanen and Hyatt went to Plaintiff's cell, placed him in belly chains, and began to escort him to the call out. While Plaintiff was being escorted, he encountered Defendant Karppinen and an altercation ensued. Plaintiff alleges that someone yelled, “let's do it, ” and then Defendants attacked him. Specifically, Plaintiff claims that Defendant Hyatt pulled him back by the restraints and slammed him to the ground, while Defendant Wertanen kicked him in the face. Plaintiff also alleges that Defendant Wertanen sprayed him with pepper spray. As a result, Plaintiff suffered a cut on his face and had several bruises.

         Defendants dispute Plaintiff's version of events. They contend that the altercation started after Plaintiff shouted, “I'm going to get you now bitch, ” and lunged at Defendant Karppinen. Plaintiff also began kicking and attempting to bite Defendants. When Plaintiff refused to comply with Defendants' orders to get on the ground, Defendant Hyatt took him to the ground by pulling on his restraints and Defendant Wertanen sprayed him with pepper spray. Defendants Wertanen and Hyatt were treated for minor injuries stemming from the altercation.

         Following the altercation, Plaintiff was charged with three misconducts-one charge for threatening Defendant Karppinen, one charge for assaulting Defendant Wertanen, and one charge for assaulting Defendant Hyatt. At a Class I misconduct hearing, the hearing officer found Plaintiff guilty of threatening Defendant Karppinen and assaulting Defendant Wertanen, However, the hearing officer dismissed the charge of assaulting Defendant Hyatt because the evidence did not establish that Plaintiff made physical contact with Defendant Hyatt. Plaintiff was also subsequently criminally charged with three counts of assault on a prison employee; however, it is unclear how those charges were ultimately resolved.[1]

         Summary judgment is appropriate only if the moving party establishes that there is no genuine issue of material fact for trial and that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). If the movant carries the burden of showing there is an absence of evidence to support a claim or defense, then the party opposing the motion must demonstrate by affidavits, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, that there is a genuine issue of material fact for trial. Id. at 324-25. The nonmoving party cannot rest on its pleadings but must present “specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). The evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986). Thus, any direct evidence offered by the plaintiff in response to a summary judgment motion must be accepted as true. Muhammad v. Close, 379 F.3d 413, 416 (6th Cir. 2004) (citing Adams v. Metiva, 31 F.3d 375, 382 (6th Cir. 1994)). “[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48. Ultimately, the court must determine whether there is sufficient “evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff.” Id. at 252; see also Leahy v. Trans Jones, Inc., 996 F.2d 136, 139 (6th Cir. 1993) (single affidavit, in presence of other evidence to the contrary, failed to present genuine issue of fact); cf. Moore, Owen, Thomas & Co. v. Coffey, 992 F.2d 1439, 1448 (6th Cir. 1993) (single affidavit concerning state of mind created factual issue).

         Defendants assert that they are entitled to qualified immunity. Government officials, performing discretionary functions, generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. Dietrich v. Burrows, 167 F.3d 1007, 1012 (6th Cir. 1999); Turner v. Scott, 119 F.3d 425, 429 (6th Cir. 1997); Noble v. Schmitt, 87 F.3d 157, 160 (6th Cir. 1996); Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). An “objective reasonableness” test is used to determine whether the official could reasonably have believed his conduct was lawful. Dietrich, 167 F.3d at 1012; Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 641 (1987). “Qualified immunity balances two important interests-the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009). In making a qualified immunity determination, the court must decide whether the facts as alleged or shown make out a constitutional violation or whether the right that was allegedly violated was a clearly established right at the time of the alleged misconduct. Id. at 232. If the court can conclude that either no constitutional violation occurred or that the right was not clearly established, qualified immunity is warranted. The court may consider either approach without regard to sequence. Id.

         Plaintiff first asserts an excessive force claim against Defendants. The parties appear to dispute whether the excessive force claim should be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment or the Eighth Amendment.[2] In Burgess v. Fischer, 735 F.3d 462, 472 (6th Cir. 2013) (citations omitted), the Sixth Circuit clarified that, “[t]he Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable seizures bars excessive force against free citizens, . . . while the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment bars excessive force against convicted persons.” Because Plaintiff's excessive force claim arose while he was serving a sentence on a criminal conviction, the undersigned will apply the Eighth Amendment framework to his excessive force claim.

         “The Eighth Amendment proscribes the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain against prisoners.” Williams v. Curtin, 631 F.3d 380, 383 (6th Cir. 2011). An Eighth Amendment claim consists of a subjective and an objective component. Cordell v. McKinney, 759 F.3d 573, 580 (6th Cir. 2014). In the excessive force context, the relevant inquiry for the subjective component 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, 7 (1992). “The objective component requires the pain inflicted to be ‘sufficiently serious.'” Williams, 631 F.3d at 383 (quoting Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 298 (1991)).

         Defendants argue that they are entitled to summary judgment because the evidence “clearly demonstrate[s] that the Plaintiff was being assaultive and combative during the escort and that the use of force was necessary and reasonable to regain control of the prisoner.” (ECF No. 61, PageID.286). As Defendants correctly point out, the critical incident report, the misconduct report, the sworn statements of Defendants, and the sworn statement of another prison employee all support their version of events-that Plaintiff lunged at Defendant Karppinen and that Plaintiff refused to obey Defendants' commands.[3] Defendants also contend that “Plaintiff has provided no evidence that would support his bogus allegations that the Defendants assaulted or unnecessarily administered force against him.” (Id.) However, in his sworn deposition, Plaintiff stated:

So I came out, and once I got to the door, that's when everything took place. That's when everything took place. They rushed me. Karppinen told them to get me and everything and it was massive, a whole bunch of commotion. I was handicapped in cuffs. Wertanen started stomping me. Well, first Hyatt slammed me -- he grabbed me, picked me up, and just slammed me. Hyatt real big so he grabbed me, picked me up, and just slammed me on my head like mmmm. And then Wertanen ran over there and just start boom, boom, boom, hitting me in my face.
So I tried to turn like this and by Hyatt being on me, I can't move at all because he's so big. He covered my whole body and his face like on this side. So since he couldn't kick me no more on my face, he came on this side and then he bent down and just started hitting me in my face like mmm, mmm, mmm, three more times, and as soon as he did that he pulled out his mace and just started spraying me for no reason, just started spraying for no reason, this is how you do things. He just started doing it, spraying the whole bottle like it was shampoo, he started spraying me.

(ECF No. 62-2, PageID.432).

         Of course, if Defendants attacked Plaintiff, then Defendants could not have been making a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline. However, if Plaintiff initiated the attack and continued to resist and kick Defendants, then Defendants likely would have been making a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline. Ultimately, this is a question of fact that must be decided at trial. Even assuming that Plaintiff initiated the altercation, there is a question of fact as to whether Defendants' use of force was still excessive. In addition, whether Defendants' conduct violated clearly established law turns on these factual determinations. “[I]f genuine issues of material fact exist as to whether the officer committed acts that would violate a clearly established right, then summary judgment is improper.” Bletz v. Gribble, 641 F.3d 743, ...

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