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Hallman v. Stitt

United States District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania

August 6, 2014

ROBERT STITT, et al., Defendants

Caldwell Judge


Martin C. Carlson United States Magistrate Judge

I. Statement of Facts and of the Case

In this case we most assuredly do not write upon a blank slate. Quite the contrary, as so often happens, the past history of this litigation now largely defines the future course of this lawsuit.

This is a pro se inmate civil rights action. The plaintiff, a state inmate, has alleged that the two remaining correctional defendants, Correctional Officers Stitt and Cates, violated his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment when they allegedly used excessive force against Hallman in the course of two separate encounters which took place on January 13, 2010 and May 28, 2010.

These two excessive force claim have previously been the subject of a summary judgment motion filed by the defendants. (Doc. 67.) That motion was denied by the district court, (Doc. 88.), adopting the Report and Recommendation of then-Magistrate Judge Mannion. (Doc. 83.) In his Report and Recommendation, Judge Mannion detailed the conflicting factual background relating to these two episodes, describing the January 13, 2010, incident in the following terms:

[T]he plaintiff’s amended complaint alleges that on January 13, 2010, the plaintiff approached the guard desk to get a cash slip signed to mail a legal package. He alleges that he was told by defendant Stitt to reopen the package which had already been sealed. The plaintiff alleges that he told defendant Stitt “never mind” and turned to go back to his cell. According to the plaintiff, he was directed to come back to the guard desk, at which time he referred defendant Stitt to the mail policy that required mail to be re-opened only when there was a security issue or if the inmate was placed on a restricted list by security, which the plaintiff was not. The plaintiff alleges that defendant Stitt then bolted from his chair and began violently pushing the plaintiff which resulted in the plaintiff suffering a busted lip. After being pushed three times, the plaintiff alleges that he “engaged in a fight” with defendant Stitt which resulted in the plaintiff also suffering a torn left bicep muscle. Based upon these allegations, the plaintiff brings an excessive force claim against defendant Stitt.

(Doc. 83, p. 5.)

With respect to this incident, Judge Mannion noted that Hallman was facing state assault charges arising out of this fight with Officer Stitt. Accordingly, Judge Mannion recommended that consideration of a summary judgment motion with respect to defendant Stitt be stayed pending completion of the criminal prosecution of Hallman. (Id.) The district court adopted this recommendation, and stayed further consideration of any summary judgment motion with respect to defendant Stitt. (Doc. 88.)

As for the May 28, 2010, incident involving defendant Cates, Judge Mannion described the conflicting evidence, cast in a light most favorable to Hallman, in the following terms:

[T]he plaintiff alleges that on May 28, 2010, he gave defendant Cates various of his personal clothing items in preparation of going to the RHU yard. The plaintiff alleges that defendant Cates “thrusted” the items back to the plaintiff through the food aperture and indicated that the plaintiff was not going to the yard because he assaulted staff and because he had his jumpsuit sleeve rolled up. When the plaintiff asked to speak with the RHU lieutenant, he alleges that defendant Cates slammed the food lid of the aperture on the plaintiff’s right thumb. The plaintiff alleges that he yelled to notify defendant Cates that his thumb was caught, but defendant Cates “coldly walked away.” According to the plaintiff, other inmates kicked their doors to bring someone’s attention to the plaintiff’s situation. Eventually, he alleges that a sergeant released his thumb and he was provided medical attention, the incident was logged, and pictures were taken.

(Doc. 83, p. 14.)

Citing conflicts in the evidence, including affidavits from other inmates who attested that “defendant Cates repeatedly slammed the plaintiff’s hand, wrist and/or arm in the aperture while making statements such as ‘That’s what happens when you assault a Huntington guard.’ ” (id., p. 17) Judge Mannion recommended that this motion for summary judgment be denied with respect to Cates. The district court also adopted this recommendation, finding that disputed, material issues of fact precluded the entry of judgment as a matter of law in favor of defendant Cates. (Doc. 88.)

Hallman’s state criminal proceedings arising out of his affray with Officer Stitt came to a close in April, 2014, when Hallman entered a plea of nolo contendere to an assault charge in this criminal case. (Doc. 114.) With the termination of this state criminal case, the stay previously entered by the district court in this matter was lifted, and the defendants renewed their summary judgment motion. (Doc. 124.)

In this motion, the defendants first argue that, as a result of Hallman’s no contest plea on state assault charges, Officer Stitt is entitled to judgment in his favor as matter of law on this excessive force claim. (Doc. 125.) The defendants also assert that on the undisputed facts relating to these two incidents they are entitled to judgment in their favor as a matter of law on Hallman’s excessive force claims against both defendants Stitt and Cates. While they make this argument the defendants candidly acknowledge that this Court has previously rejected this precise claim and has ruled that disputed issues of fact precluded summary judgment in favor of defendant Cates. (Id.) Finally, the defendants contend that they are entitled to summary judgment since defendants Stitt and Cates should be shielded from personal liability by qualified immunity. (Id.)

This motion is fully briefed by the parties, (Docs. 125, 129.), and is, therefore, ripe for resolution. With the scope of our discretion confined both by the prior rulings of this Court, which constitute the law of the case, and by the prior precedential rulings of the court of appeals, which directly address the defenses raised in this motion, it is recommended that this motion be denied.

II. Discussion

A. Summary Judgment–Standard of Review

Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure ...

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