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Giles v. Kearney

July 15, 2009


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Delaware (D.C. No. 02-cv-01674) District Judge: Honorable Sue L. Robinson.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Aldisert, Circuit Judge


Argued March 10, 2009

Before: FUENTES, CHAGARES and ALDISERT, Circuit Judges.


This appeal arises from a pro se action brought by Appellant Wardell Leroy Giles, who suffered injuries including a broken rib and punctured lung after being forcibly subdued and kicked or "kneed" in the side by correctional officers while he was incarcerated at Sussex Correctional Institution ("SCI"). Giles filed claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the officers and other parties, alleging excessive force and deliberate indifference to medical needs in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Giles appeals from the District Court's order granting summary judgment based on qualified immunity for three officers in their individual capacities, and from the District Court's judgment in favor of the remaining Appellees.

Because Giles testified that he was kicked and punched while fully restrained on the ground, after he ceased to resist, Giles alleges conduct in violation of his Eighth Amendment rights that a reasonable officer would have known was a violation under the circumstances, and we will reverse the District Court's grant of summary judgment for the three correctional officers in their individual capacities. We will affirm the judgment of the District Court with regard to the other Appellees.*fn1


Giles contends that the District Court did not accept his factual allegations as true or adequately address the defendants' use of force in its summary judgment analysis. Giles also contends that the District Court did not properly consider the five factors established in Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 322 (1986), in its conclusion that the force used against him was not excessive, and that the District Court erred in finding that the correctional officers were not deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs and did not adequately address conflicting testimony as to whether Giles had requested medical treatment.

On an appeal from a grant or denial of summary judgment, our review is plenary and we apply the same test the district court should have utilized initially. See Alexander v. Nat'l Fire Ins., 454 F.3d 214, 219 (3d Cir. 2006); Brooks v. Kylar, 204 F.3d 102, 105 n.5 (3d Cir. 2000). A court may grant summary judgment only when the record "shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Rule 56(c), Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. In this analysis, "[t]he evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor" in determining whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). The mere existence of some evidence in support of the non-movant is insufficient to deny a motion for summary judgment; enough evidence must exist to enable a jury to reasonably find for the non-movant on the issue. Id. at 249. Where the plaintiff is a pro se litigant, the court has an obligation to construe the complaint liberally. See Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-521 (1972); Gibbs v. Roman, 116 F.3d 83, 86 n.6 (3d Cir. 1997).

A district court's findings of fact under Rule 52(a) are reviewed for clear error. United States v. U.S. Gypsum Co., 333 U.S. 364, 394-395 (1948). Rule 52(a) requires that the district court's ultimate decision be supported by subordinate factual findings. O'Neill v. United States, 411 F.2d 139, 146 (3d Cir. 1969). However, In reviewing the decision of the District Court, our responsibility is not to substitute findings we could have made had we been the fact-finding tribunal; our sole function is to review the record to determine whether the findings of the District Court were clearly erroneous, i.e., whether we are "left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed." It is the responsibility of an appellate court to accept the ultimate factual determination of the fact-finder unless that determination either (1) is completely devoid of minimum evidentiary support displaying some hue of credibility, or (2) bears no rational relationship to the supportive evidentiary data.

Krasnov v. Dinan, 465 F.2d 1298, 1302 (3d Cir. 1972) (internal citation omitted). In bench trials, a district court's application of the deliberate indifference and excessive force legal standards to a set of facts is also guided by the clear error standard. See Goffman v. Gross, 59 F.3d 668, 671-672 (7th Cir. 1995) (deliberate indifference); Quezada v. County of Bernalillo, 944 F.2d 710, 715 (10th Cir. 1991) (excessive force); Jacobs v. City of New Orleans, 484 F.2d 24, 26 (5th Cir. 1973) (excessive force).

Clear error review is deferential: "If the district court's account of the evidence is plausible in light of the record viewed in its entirety, the court of appeals may not reverse it even though convinced that had it been sitting as the trier of fact, it would have weighed the evidence differently." Anderson v. Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 573 (1985). When a district court's findings are based on credibility determinations, Rule 52(a) demands even greater deference. Id. Nevertheless, a court may not insulate its findings from review by "denominating them credibility determinations, [because] factors other than demeanor . . . go into the decision whether or not to believe a witness." Id. at 575.


The relevant evidence concerns two related use-of-force incidents at SCI after Giles had been transferred there, as well as the medical aftermath of those incidents. One incident occurred in a prison shower during Giles' intake process; the second ...

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