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Reversing the dismissal of inmate’s Eighth Amendment claim for excessive force

Dismissal of inmate’s Eighth Amendment claim was incorrect

Sears filed this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights lawsuit for excessive force and deliberate indifference as a result of a physical assault and having been pepper sprayed after he was handcuffed and compliant. This incident happened while he was an inmate in Polk Correctional institution in Polk City, Florida. The district court ruled in favor of the correctional officers based on the Eleventh Circuit’s precedence in O’Bryant v Finch. The court of appeals reversed because it found the district court misread that decision and misapplied it by crediting the defendants’ version of the events over the Sears’ sworn allegations.

Sears had a dispute with another guard and tried to see the captain to lodge a complaint. The guard with whom he had the dispute told two other guards, the defendant, who tried to place him in handcuffs. When he resisted, he was forced to the ground and handcuffed. While he was restrained one of the defendants began punching him on his body while the other choked him. through it all a third defendant kept spraying him in the face with the chemical agent. They continued beating him. Sears estimated the entire physical altercation lasted about 16 minutes.

After the incident two defendants filed prison disciplinary reports against Sears for refusing an order by refusing to submit to handcuffs. The disciplinary hearing found Sears guilty of disobeying orders and went with the officers’ version of the incident in which they stated he charged the officers, striking them with his fists before the officers were able to subdue him. Sears lost his appeal of his prison sanctions.

Sears filed his 1983 action claiming excessive force in violation of the Eighth Amendment and that the other officers had been deliberately indifferent to a substantial risk of serious harm when they watched the assault without intervening. The district court dismissed the case in its summary judgment order reasoning that the prison disciplinary panel had found Sears guilty of battery against the officer and because the hearing satisfied due process Sears could not challenge the panel’s factual findings in this lawsuit. It found that Sears could not deny the conduct in the report and cannot imply that it was false. It also drew from the defendant’s exhibits in the summary judgment as the undisputed facts of the case.

The court of appeals found the district court erred. Sear’s statements supported of his verified civil rights lawsuit for excessive force. His sworn responses to the officer’s summary judgment and the sworn affidavit attached to that response should have been treated by the district court as testimony. The district court mistakenly relied upon O’Bryant v Finch for it decision to only consider the findings of the prison panel and the officers’ statements. But the O’Bryant facts were different, and Sear’s situation did not fall within the rule in O’Bryant. Sears was not challenging the disciplinary panel’s finding that he violated a prison rule nor does the success of his Eighth Amendment claim depend on the finding that the disciplinary panel’s decision was wrong.

The question in a summary judgement is not about which side has offered the most evidence, instead the question is simply whether there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party.