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Stockton v. Wetzel

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 30, 2019

JOHN WETZEL, et al., Defendants


          A. RICHARD CAPUTO United States District Judge

         Plaintiff, Ronald Stockton, an inmate formerly housed at the Smithfield State Correctional Institution (SCI-Smithfield) in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, filed this civil-rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, asserting two Eighth Amendment claims against various Pennsylvania Department of Corrections employees.[1] Mr. Stockton's claims that on December 20, 2013, Defendants Corrections Officer (CO) Barndt, CO Harpster, CO Parks, CO Willinsky, CO Wilson and Lt. Bard assaulted him when he exited his Restricted Housing Unit (RHU) cell after his cell door was mysteriously opened.[2] Following the assault, he claims Nurse Houck denied him medical treatment for his injuries. (ECF No. 33.)

         Presently before the Court is Defendants' properly supported motion for summary judgment with supporting brief, statement of undisputed facts and exhibits. (ECF No. 95, 96, 97, and 98.) Plaintiff has filed multiple opposition briefs, answers to Defendants' statement of material facts and exhibits. (ECF Nos. 102, 103, 104, 110, and 111.) Defendants' have filed a Reply and a Court sanctioned Supplemental Reply. (ECF Nos. 105 and 112.)

         On summary judgment Defendants argue that: (1) Mr. Stockton's excessive use of force claim is barred by the holdings in Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 114 S.Ct. 2364, 129 L.Ed.2d 383 (1994) and Jacobs v. Bayha, 616 Fed.Appx. 507 (3d Cir. 2015) following his criminal conviction for aggravated assault of CO Willinsky during the December 2013 altercation; (2) Nurse Houck was not deliberately indifferent to Mr. Stockton's medical needs that day; (3) Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity; and (4) Mr. Stockton failed to exhaust his administrative remedies against CO Harpster and Nurse Houck. (ECF No. 98.) Contrary to Defendants' assertions, Mr. Stockton argues that his criminal aggravated assault conviction for striking CO Willinsky does not bar his excessive use of force claim and that the force Defendants used against him was excessive for the situation. He claims to have properly exhausted his administrative remedies against all Defendants either through a misconduct, grievance, or the inmate abuse allegation policy. As for Nurse Houck, he claims “the blood pouring down [his] face clearly shows that Plaintiff needed some form of treatment” yet she did not examine his injuries or provide him with any treatment. (ECF No. 111 at 3.) The motion is fully briefed and ripe for disposition by the Court.

         The Court will grant in part and deny in part the Defendants' motion for summary judgment. As there are genuine issues of material fact whether Defendants used excessive force to subdue Mr. Stockton prior to transporting him to the strip search cell, Defendants' motion will be denied with respect to CO Park, CO Barndt, CO Harpster, CO Willinsky, CO Wilson, and Lt. Bard. Summary judgment will be entered for Defendant Houck with respect to Mr. Stockton's Eighth Amendment claim against her. This matter will be set for trial at the convenience of the Court.

         II. Summary Judgment Standard of Review

          Summary judgment is appropriate if, after reviewing the entire record in a case, the court is satisfied that no genuine issues of material fact exist, and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The court must view all facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Forrest v. Parry, 930 F.3d 93 (3d Cir. 2019). An issue of fact is “genuine” if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. (Id.) Issues of fact are “material” only if establishment of such facts might affect the outcome of the lawsuit under the governing substantive law. (Id.)

         To prevail on summary judgment, the moving party must affirmatively identify those portions of the record which demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Santini v. Fuentes, 795 F.3d 410 (3d Cir. 2015). If this burden is met, the nonmoving party “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to material facts.” Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Rather, the party opposing summary judgment “must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Saldana v. Kmart Corp., 260 F.3d 228, 232 (3d Cir. 2001) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986)).

         III. Statement of Undisputed Facts

          The following facts are undisputed or, where disputed, reflect Mr. Stockton's version of the facts, pursuant to this Court's duty to view all facts and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Forrest, 930 F.3d at 105.

         A. Related Criminal Proceeding

         On September 16, 2014, following a jury trial, Mr. Stockton was convicted of aggravated assault, 18 Pa. C.S. § 2702(a)(3).[3] (ECF No. 96-2.) Specifically, a jury convicted Mr. Stockton of assaulting CO Willinsky on December 20, 2013 in SCI-Smithfield's RHU. (ECF No. 96, Defs.' Statement of Material Facts (DSMF) at ¶ 20; see also ECF No. 96-3 at 2.) On November 13, 2014, Mr. Stockton received a sentence of 27 to 100 months' confinement to run consecutively to any sentence he was serving at that time. Commonwealth v. Stockton, CP-31-CR-0254-2014 (Huntingdon Cty. Ct. Com. Pl.)(docket sheet).[4]

         Mr. Stockton, represented by counsel, did not testify at this criminal trial. (ECF No. 96-3.) CO Park, Lt. Bard, CO Willinsky, CO Barndt, CO Wilson, CO Harpster all testified, under oath, at the criminal trial. (Id.)

         CO Park testified that he was working in the K Block control bubble on December 20, 2013. He mistakenly remotely opened Mr. Stockton's and another inmate's RHU cell doors that day. (Id. at 16.) CO Park opened the control bubble window and verbally ordered both RHU inmates to return to their cells. (Id.) Only Mr. Stockton came out of his cell. (ECF No. 96-5 at 4.) Mr. Stockton then returned to his cell, donned his jumpsuit, and came out of his cell. (Id.)

         CO Park notified area officers and Lt. Bard that Mr. Stockton was out of his cell. (ECF No. 96-3 at 19.) Lt. Bard ordered Mr. Stockton to return to his cell. (Id. at 23.) CO Willinsky also ordered Mr. Stockton to return to his cell. (Id. at 31; DSMF at 22.) As CO Willinsky approached Mr. Stockton, he ordered Plaintiff to face the wall and place his hands behind his back. CO Harpster recounted hearing Mr. Stockton say “Fuckin' make me go in.” Mr. Stockton ignored the order and took a defensive stance as CO Willinsky approached and punched the officer in the head. (ECF No. 96-3 at 17, 30 and 49; DSMF at 23.) Mr. Stockton threw multiple closed fist punches at CO Willinsky, many of them landed on his head and neck. (ECF No. 96-3 at 32; DSMF at 24.) Other officers arrived and attempted to subdue Mr. Stockton by striking him. Mr. Stockton continued to be combative and kick. (ECF No. 96-3 at 24, 32 and 50.) After additional officers responded, they assisted in getting Mr. Stockton to the ground and secured him in handcuffs. (Id. at 42.)

         B. The Escort Video

         This video does not capture the events of December 20, 2013, in SCI-Smithfield's RHU prior to prison staff applying leg shackles and a tether to an already handcuffed Mr. Stockton. The 34-minute video depicts the process of escorting Mr. Stockton off the RHU tier to the unit's strip search cell, his strip search, an encounter with Nurse Houck and his transfer back to his RHU cell. See ECF No. 96-4, Attach. A. Mr. Stockton claims Defendants ceased their assault once the video camera arrived on the scene.

         The video commences with Mr. Stockton, who is wearing an orange jumpsuit, face down on the floor of the tier surrounded by several staff members. As the officers applied the leg shackles and tether to Mr. Stockton, a small spot of blood from his right index finger is visible on the back of his jumpsuit. Less than a minute later a staff member makes a radio request to call “medical.” Five staff members escort Mr. Stockton from the top tier of the RHU to the stairwell. One staff member, holding the tether, leads Mr. Stockton who walks backwards and bent at the waist, to the staircase. Another staff member stands in front of Mr. Stockton while two officers flanked either side of Mr. Stockton hold his arms. One officer supervised the process and gave verbal directions to the other officers and Mr. Stockton. Staff tell Mr. Stockton he must go to the strip search cell. Staff permit Mr. Stockton to stand up, face forward and walk down the steps. Still escorted by staff, Mr. Stockton remains upright as he walks off the unit without incident or assistance. Mr. Stockton does not attempt to physically resist the process. Staff do not push, pull, shove, or strike Mr. Stockton during this process. Mr. Stockton and staff pass through at least two secure doors prior to reaching the strip search area without incident. Mr. Stockton did not appear confused, disoriented, or clumsy as he walked backward off the tier or down the steps. No. blood is visible on his face or the front of his jumpsuit.

         Some members of the escort team depart while others place Mr. Stockton in the strip search cell, direct him to get on his knees and remain there while staff exit the strip cell. Staff remove his leg shackles and hand cuffs without incident. Once secured in the cell, Mr. Stockton stood up, faced the camera, and stood next to the back wall of the cell. Mr. Stockton flexed the fingers on his right hand and wiped his hand of the front of is jumpsuit. After standing silently for four minutes, Mr. Stockton calmly told the cameraman “Sorry, (inaudible), I need to call the abuse hotline” as he visually examined his right hand. The officer responds “Alright.” Mr. Stockton resumes standing face forward and leaning against the back of the cell. He continues to occasionally wipe his right hand on his jumpsuit.

         Eleven minutes into the video, Nurse Melissa Houck enters the strip search area. The camera operator tells Nurse Houck she may have to wait to examine Mr. Stockton “until they are done feeding.” Mr. Stockton continues to silently stand against the back wall.

         Twelve and a half minutes into the video someone off camera enters the area and states that “he just assaulted staff”. Mr. Stockton responded that he did not assault staff, but that staff assaulted him while he was in handcuffs. He voiced that Level 5 housing security procedures prohibit the opening of his cell door unless he is in cuffs. He stated his cell door opened and that he was backing up when staff attacked him. He also said that he was not supposed to be in the RHU as his disciplinary sentence expired.

         Staff asked Mr. Stockton if he would comply with a strip search so medical could photograph him. He stated that no pictures, other than of his face, were necessary. Staff explained that DOC policy required Nurse Houck to take a minimum of four pictures of him. Mr. Stockton initially refused to allow medical to take any pictures of his body other than his face because “that's the only marks I have on my body, is on my face.” Although Mr. Stockton states “I ain't got no marks on my body to do no strip search, ” he does not verbally refuse to be strip searched.

         Mr. Stockton removed his jumpsuit, t-shirt, socks, and shoes without assistance and handed them to the officer for inspection. He then removed his undershorts and followed the officer's verbal instructions for the remainder of the visual strip search. Mr. Stockton easily and quickly turned his head to both sides, bent his neck, bent over at the waist, moved both arms in front of him as well as above his head. He turned around and stood on alternating feet without wobbling or losing his balance. An officer returned his undershorts to him and he put them back on.

         Nurse Houck returned to the area. Mr. Stockton again told officers he would only allow her to photograph his face. An officer commented that Mr. Stockton's “knuckle [was] bleeding.” Mr. Stockton said, “I'm not worried about that.” Nurse Houck told Mr. Stockton that she must take four pictures of him: top, bottom, front and back. He said, “you just got to take pictures of anything that got hurt.” He said he was not refusing to take the pictures but telling staff “where my injuries are.”

         Eighteen minutes into the video, staff ordered Mr. Stockton to back up to the cell door so staff could reapply his handcuffs before Nurse Houck entered the cell. At first Mr. Stockton refused and agreed to allow only pictures of his face because “you don't see no marks on my body”. Staff repeated the order for Mr. Stockton to put his hands through cell door slot to allow staff to apply the handcuffs. Mr. Stockton continued to argue with staff. Nurse Houck asked him if he was giving up his right to claim injuries from the incident. Mr. Stockton responded that he had injuries to his right shoulder and face. After a period of argument, Mr. Stockton agreed to be handcuffed but pulled away from officers when he thought Nurse Houck was taking pictures of his hands. Eventually Mr. Stockton agreed to allow staff to handcuff him. Officers then opened the cell door and entered the strip search cell accompanied by Nurse Houck. She took several photographs of Mr. Stockton, including his hands. Nurse Houck and the cameraman had an unobstructed view of Mr. Stockton during this process. Mr. Stockton also said his lip was injured. When an officer again noted that his hands were bleeding, Mr. Stockton said the blood belonged to someone else.

         With Mr. Stockton facing forward, two small areas of swelling are visible on the front of his forehead; one about an inch over his left eyebrow and the other at his hairline on the outer portion of his left eyebrow. The video reveals several unobstructed views of his face and torso from the front and back. There is no visible bleeding from his forehead or the bridge of his nose. There are no visible injuries or swelling to his arms, chest, ribs or back. Nurse Houck asked him “if anything hurt?” Mr. Stockton replied “yeah, my face.” Nurse Houck then asked him if he had any blurred vision. He said, “a little bit.” Nurse Houck then instructed him to wash the injured area ...

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