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Vactor v. Overmyer

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 26, 2018

MICHAEL OVERMYER, et al, Defendants.


          Susan Paradise Baxter United States Magistrate Judge

         Relevant Procedural History

         This civil action was filed in this Court on February 4, 2016. Plaintiff, an inmate incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Forest, brings this action against Defendants Superintendent Michael Overmyer, Correctional Officer Jason Reed, Correctional Officer James, Correctional Officer P.D. Means, Correctional Officer Paul Winger, Correctional Officer J.W. Barger, Correctional Officer R.A. Johnson, and Correctional Officers John Doe 1-3.

         On February 22, 2014, Plaintiff and another inmate were involved in an altercation. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant James, a correctional officer trying to intervene to stop the altercation, used excessive force against him; that the Correctional Officer Defendants failed to intervene to stop James' excessive use of force; and that Defendant Overmyer, in his capacity as Warden of the facility, is responsible for the operation of SCI Forest, as well as the welfare of the individual inmates.

         Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment [ECF No. 45] and Plaintiff filed a brief in opposition [ECF No. 61]. This motion is fully briefed and is ripe for disposition by this Court.

         Standards of Review

         1) Pro Se Litigants

         Pro se pleadings, "however inartfully pleaded, " must be held to "less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-521 (1972). If the court can reasonably read pleadings to state a valid claim on which the litigant could prevail, it should do so despite failure to cite proper legal authority, confusion of legal theories, poor syntax and sentence construction, or litigant's unfamiliarity with pleading requirements. Boag v. MacDoueall. 454 U.S. 364 (1982); United States ex rel. Montgomery v. Bierley, 141 F.2d 552, 555 (3d Cir. 1969) (petition prepared by a prisoner may be inartfully drawn and should be read "with a measure of tolerance"); Smith v. U.S. District Court, 956 F.2d 295 (D.C.Cir. 1992); Freeman v. Dep't of Corrections, 949 F.2d 360 (10th Cir. 1991). Under our liberal pleading rules, during the initial stages of litigation, a district court should construe all allegations in a complaint in favor of the complainant. Gibbs v. Roman, 116 F.3d 83 (3d Cir. 1997). See, e.g., Nami v. Fauver. 82 F.3d 63, 65 (3d Cir. 1996) (discussing Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) standard); Markowitz v. Northeast Land Co., 906 F.2d 100, 103 (3d Cir. 1990) (same). Because Plaintiff is a pro se litigant, this Court may consider facts and make inferences where it is appropriate.

         2) Motion for summary judgment

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) provides that summary judgment shall be granted if the "movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." When applying this standard, the court must examine the factual record and reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587(1986).

         The moving party has the initial burden of proving to the district court the absence of evidence supporting the non-moving party's claims. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 330 (1986); Andreoli v. Gates. 482 F.3d 641, 647 (3d Cir. 2007); UPMC Health System v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co.. 391 F.3d 497, 502 (3d Cir. 2004). The burden then shifts to the non-movant to come forward with specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); Williams v. Borough of West Chester. Pa.. 891 F.2d 458, 460-461 (3d Cir. 1989) (the non-movant must present affirmative evidence - more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance -which supports each element of his claim to defeat a properly presented motion for summary judgment). The non-moving party must go beyond the pleadings and show specific facts by affidavit or by information contained in the filed documents (i.e., depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions) to meet his burden of proving elements essential to his claim. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. See also Saldana v. Kmart Corp.. 260 F.3d 228, 232 (3d Cir. 2001).

         When considering a motion for summary judgment, the court is not permitted to weigh the evidence or to make credibility determinations, but is limited to deciding whether there are any disputed issues and, if there are, whether they are both genuine and material. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby. Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). The court must consider the evidence, and all reasonable inferences which may be drawn from it, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Matsushita. 475 U.S. at 587. Importantly, however, in a case such as this one where there are video recordings of the incidents in question, the Court need not adopt the non-movant's version of the facts if the recording "blatantly contradict[s]" the non-movant's version "so that no reasonable jury could believe it." Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007).

         The Allegations of the Complaint

         Plaintiff alleges that on February 22, 2014, he and Inmate Gerald Alstin were involved in a physical altercation in which Defendant Correctional Officer James intervened. In doing so, James jumped on Plaintiffs back, applying a chokehold around Plaintiffs neck. All three men fell to the ground with James still on Plaintiffs back applying the chokehold. ECF No. 3, ¶ ¶ 32-34.

         Correctional Officers Reed, Means, Winger, and Barger responded to the altercation and separated the two inmates. These officers pulled Plaintiff, with James still attached on his back, under the stairs and tried to restrain and cuff him. Id. at ¶ ¶ 35-40. These officers told Plaintiff to stop resisting because Alstin was restrained and in custody. Id. at ¶ 41. Plaintiff then stopped resisting and was handcuffed. Id.

         Ten seconds later, Plaintiff looked up to see Alstin standing directly over top of him. Id. Alstin then re-engaged in the assault upon Plaintiff while Plaintiff was handcuffed and restrained and still in the chokehold of Correctional Officer James. Id. at ¶ ¶ 43. Alstin punched Plaintiff in the face several times and scratched him, digging his nails deeply into Plaintiffs face, head, and ears. Id. at ¶ 44. Officers Reed, Means, Winger, and Barger watched the brutal assault take place and did nothing to stop it. Additionally, Correctional Officers Johnson and John Does 1-3, who were responsible for restraining and cuffing Alstin, did nothing. Id. at ¶ 45. Alstin then got down on his hands and knees and started barking at Plaintiff, and then tried to bite Plaintiffs face, ears, and head. Id. at ¶ 48. Again, the correctional officers did nothing. Id. at ¶ 49.[2]

         Other officers responded to the scene and Alstin was restrained and removed from the block. Id. at ¶ ¶ 50-51. Correctional Officer James continued to apply the chokehold to Plaintiff and Plaintiff yelled for James to "get off my neck." Id. at ΒΆ 52. Defendant Means told James to get off of Plaintiff s neck and that he was ...

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