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Williams v. Mussomelli

December 6, 1983

RONALD ALFRED WILLIAMS, APPELLEE
v.
SGT. MUSSOMELLI, ROBERT WHITESELL, CORRECTIONAL OFFICER I, JOHN WEAVER, CORRECTIONAL OFFICER I, ROBERT MILLER, SGT. CORRECTIONAL OFFICER, ROBERT HORVAT, CORRECTIONAL OFFICER I, STATE CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION AT PITTSBURGH, P.O. BOX 9901, PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA, 15233, ROBERT WHITESELL, APPELLANT, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, INTERVENOR



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA.

Aldisert, Hunter, and Weis, Circuit Judges.

Author: Weis

Opinion OF THE COURT

WEIS, Circuit Judge.

The magistrate trying this case in the district court instructed the jury that "grossly excessive force" used by a prison guard against an inmate would constitute a violation of the eighth amendment. We conclude that when the charge is read as a whole, this language and other similar phraseology adequately expressed the appropriate standard. We also find applicable a decision of this court in a companion case that upholds the authority of a magistrate to conduct trials and enter judgments. We therefore affirm the judgment entered on a verdict in favor of the plaintiff inmate.

The plaintiff's civil rights complaint against several prison guards alleged mistreatment violative of the eighth amendment. By consent of the parties, the case was tried by a magistrate sitting with a jury. Plaintiff was awarded $3,500 in compensatory damages against Robert Whitesell, and the other defendants were absolved of responsibility. Whitesell's motion for a new trial was denied.

Plaintiff testified that on June 16, 1977, while an inmate at the Western State Penitentiary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he was taken to the "strip and search" room. He was ordered to remove his clothes, and as he began to do so, Officer Whitesell directed him to open his mouth. Plaintiff refused, even after the order was repeated. Whitesell then put his hands on the plaintiff's throat, apparently in an attempt to prevent him from swallowing anything that might be in his mouth. Plaintiff pushed Whitesell away, and then was attacked by him and other guards who proceeded to punch and kick plaintiff.

He was soon handcuffed and knocked to the floor. The guards continued to kick plaintiff as he lay on the floor. He bled from his nose and mouth. After a superior officer stopped the beating, several guards took plaintiff to the prison infirmary where he remained until the following day.

The magistrate charged the jury that, as an inmate, plaintiff had the right under the eighth amendment "not to be subjected to unnecessary, unreasonable, and grossly excessive force by prison officials." She also explained that prison officials are permitted to use force when necessary to maintain discipline or control prisoners, but they may not use force "which violates the standards of decency more or less universally accepted." The jury was instructed that in coming to its decision it should consider the need for application of force, the relationship between that need and amount of force used, the extent of plaintiff's injuries, and last "whether each defendant applied force in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline or maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm to the plaintiff."

The magistrate's jury charge adopted either the verbiage or substance of most of the three points for charge submitted by the defense. She declined to instruct the jury that the defendants' actions would constitute cruel and unusual punishment only if their conduct was "physically barbarous, shocking to the conscience, contrary to notions of dignity, humanity, and decency, or such as to offend sensibilities, shock the conscience or constitute brutality."

The jury's answers to special interrogatories found that Whitesell had used unreasonable and grossly excessive force, causing the plaintiff's injuries. The jury refused to award punitive damages, finding that Whitesell did not act with malice or wrongful intent.

Defendant appeals on the sole ground that the trial magistrate did not adequately explain the eighth amendment standard and thus failed to establish the distinction between a common law tort claim and one which rises to a constitutional one.

I

Before addressing the merits, we must consider a jurisdictional matter. A panel of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has held unconstitutional 28 U.S.C. ยง 636(c) (Supp. V. 1981), the statute authorizing trial by a magistrate on consent of the parties. Pacemaker Diagnostic Clinic, Inc. v. Instromedix, Inc., 712 F.2d 1305 (9th Cir. 1983), rehearing in banc granted, 718 F.2d 971 (1983). In reaching that conclusion, the panel relied on ...


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