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Decided: May 19, 2015

The Fourth Circuit affirmed a North Carolina district court’s denial of summary judgment to correctional officers implicated in a Section 1983 excessive force claim.

The 1983 claim arose from Ussery’s forcible extraction from his cell. According to Ussery, in the several days leading up to the extraction, officers had searched his cell repeatedly and never found any weapon or other contraband. On the date of the extraction, when told to exit his cell, Ussery refused to do so for fear that his cell would be “tossed.” Upon his refusal, Sergeant Mansfield pepper sprayed Ussery, but Ussery continued to refuse to exit. The parties agree about the extraction, but have significantly different versions of the event. While they all agree Sergeant Mansfield assembled a team of five correctional officers for the extraction and one to videotape the extraction per prison procedure, then telling the team that Ussery had a weapon and threatened to harm anyone who entered, Ussery denies ever possessing a weapon or making a threat. Furthermore, the team found no weapons. Ussery contends when his cell was unlocked, the officers restrained him on the floor and repeatedly beat, punched, and kicked him. While the video is consistent with Ussery’s account in some respects, Sergeant Mansfield stood in front of the camera for a significant period of time, blocking the view of the extraction. Later, Ussery had to go to a hospital for emergency treatment of his wounds and lacerations, which he contends medical records indicated caused an increase in bi-lateral hearing loss, neck pain, loss of vision in the right eye, chronic swelling and loss of feeling in his hands and knees, and recurring migraines. As a result, the North Carolina Department of Corrections launched an investigation into whether the officers employed excessive force. The report was inconclusive but stated the behavior of the officers appeared too aggressive for the situation. The officers denied punching and kicking Ussery and relied on a report from a prison doctor who had not personally examined Ussery that stated Ussery’s injuries were all minor and had since healed.

Given the timing of the incident, the applicable precedent (prior to the Wilkins standard adopted in 2010) required that an inmate must show more than de minimis injuries or that the defendants’ use of force be repugnant to mankind’s conscience. The trial court found there was insufficient evidence in the record regarding the extent of injuries and noted that the repugnant circumstances were a question of fact for the jury, thereby precluding a granting of summary judgment. The Fourth Circuit disagreed with the officers’ account that Ussery’s injuries were de minimis and pointed to the Department of Corrections investigation into the incident to establish that the injuries were likely severe if they warranted an investigation into excessive force. The court also compared Ussery’s injuries to comparable injuries that were not held to be de minimis.

Full Opinion

Kayla M. Porter