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Hill v. Crum, No. 12-6705

Decided:  August 14, 2013

The Fourth Circuit held that Correctional Officer William Crum (“Crum”) was entitled to qualified immunity regarding inmate Demetrius Hill’s Bivens action.  The Fourth Circuit therefore reversed the order of the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia, and remanded the case to the district court with instructions to enter judgment in favor of Crum.

On November 1, 2007, Crum allegedly assaulted Demetrius Hill (“Hill”) after Hill’s cellmate broke a fire sprinkler.  According to Hill, Crum punched him in the abdomen and ribs, elbowed him in the side of his head, and shouted “break another sprinkler, I’ll break your neck.”  Crum moved Hill to a holding cell after the assault, knocking Hill’s head against a gate in the process.  Hill alleged that the assault resulted in a bruised rib, temporary dizziness, and a vicious headache.  Video footage of Hill in his new cell did not indicate visible distress, though Hill alleged he had a swollen eye.  Nurse Theresa Meade (“Meade”) examined Hill while he was in the holding cell, and found that he did not have any injuries.  In April 2008, Hill brought a Bivens action in the district court against eleven prison officials.  Though Hill did not list Crum as a defendant in the complaint, he subsequently amended his pleading, including a separate excessive force claim against Crum based on the alleged assault.  Relying on Norman v. Taylor, 25 F.3d 1259, the district court dismissed Hill’s excessive force claim against Crum, and Hill appealed.  While Hill’s appeal was pending the Supreme Court decided Wilkins v. Gaddy, 559 U.S. 34, which abrogated Norman.  The Fourth Circuit therefore vacated the district court’s dismissal and remanded the case.  The case went to trial on remand.  At trial, Crum twice moved for judgment as a matter of law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) on the basis of qualified immunity.  The district court denied Crum’s motions, and the jury issued a verdict in favor of Hill.  After the trial, Crum moved for a new trial and for judgment as a matter of law; the district court granted Crum’s new trial motion but denied his Rule 50(b) motion.  Crum appealed the denial of his motion for judgment as a matter of law.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit noted that the Wilkins Court rejected the Fourth Circuit’s approach in Norman, under which a plaintiff cannot prevail on an excessive force claim if, absent extraordinary circumstances, the plaintiff’s injury was no more than de minimis.  However, the Supreme Court decided Wilkins in 2010—several years after Crum’s alleged assault.  Thus, the Fourth Circuit found that Crum did not violate the court’s clearly established law in existence on November 1, 2007, as he inflicted no more than de minimis injuries on Hill.  Furthermore, the assault did not involve “extraordinary circumstances”:  It involved mere brute force rather than torture, humiliation, or degradation, and Hill’s injuries were not painful enough to constitute “more than de minimis injury.”

Full Opinion

– Stephen Sutherland