By Whitney Pakalka

On May 19, 2015, The Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case of Ussery v. Mansfield, 786 F.3d 332. Sammy Ussery filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that officers at the North Carolina penal institution where he was incarcerated caused him serious injuries by their use of excessive force. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of the officers’ motion for summary judgment.

  Ussery Claimed Correctional Officers Used Excessive Force

Sammy Ussery was an inmate at a correctional facility where he was forcibly extracted from his cell by correctional officers on July 9, 2008. Sergeant David Mansfield ordered Ussery to exit his cell so that it could be searched, but Ussery refused because officers repeatedly searched his cell in previous days without discovering any contraband. Sgt. Mansfield then gathered an extraction team of officers, including Officers James Dunlow and Timothy Ruffin, named defendants.

Although prison policy mandates that extractions be videotaped, Sgt. Mansfield stood in front of the video camera during most of the extraction, obstructing the view of Userry’s cell. What can be seen on the video, however, comports with some of Ussery’s account that the officers “beat him repeatedly in the head and face with batons, punches and kicks” and that Sgt. Mansfield “kicked and stomped” on him. Ussery was eventually handcuffed and carried out of his cell, and he was later taken to the hospital for emergency treatment of his injuries.

Several months later, the State Bureau of Investigation conducted an inquiry at the request of the state Department of Corrections to determine whether excessive force was used. However, because the video of Userry’s cell was obstructed by Sgt. Mansfield, the SBI was not able to reach a definitive conclusion.

The District Court Denied One of Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment

Ussery filed an action pro se under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that the officers violated the Eighth Amendment by use of excessive force and for failure-to-protect. Ussery contended that as a result of the force used, he suffered hearing loss, neck pain, loss of vision in one eye, and other injuries that caused him ongoing “physical and emotional pain and suffering, and disability.”

The officers denied punching or kicking Ussery, and argued that he only incurred de minimis injuries. The officers submitted an affidavit of a doctor employed by the Division of Prisons who said that Ussery only had minor injuries with no lasting effects. The doctor based his medical opinion on prison records without examining Ussery. The officers requested summary judgment based on an entitlement to qualified immunity. The district court granted the motion as to the failure-to-protect claim, but denied the motion as to the excessive force claim.

Qualified Immunity from Civil Damages for Excessive Use of Force

In cases where excessive force is claimed, the Fourth Circuit previously applied the standard from Norman v. Taylor, 25 F.3d 1259 (4th Cir. 1994) (en banc). The court in Norman held that a plaintiff cannot prevail on an Eighth Amendment excessive force claim if his injury is de minimis, unles he can show that the use of force was “repugnant to the conscience of mankind.” However, Norman was abrogated by the Supreme Court in Wilkins v. Gaddy, 559 U.S. 34, 38–39 (2010), holding that “[a]n inmate who is gratuitously beaten by guards does not lose his ability to pursue an excessive force claim merely because he has the good fortune to escape without serious injury.”

The Fourth Circuit still applies the standard set out in Norman for cases where the alleged use of excessive force occurred before Wilkins was decided. Thus, because the extraction occurred in 2008, Ussery will have to establish (1) that he sustained more than de minimis injuries, or (2) that the use of force was “of a sort repugnant to the conscience of mankind and thus expressly outside the de minimis force exception.” Norman, 25 F.3d at 1263, n.4.

Jurisdiction for an Appeal from Denial of a Claim of Qualified Immunity

When a district court denies a claim of qualified immunity, it is an appealable final decision under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, “to the extent that it turns on an issue of law.” Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 530 (1985). The Supreme Court further explained that where a district court denies summary judgment to a defendant seeking qualified immunity entirely on the basis of evidentiary sufficiency, no basis for an interlocutory appeal exists. Johnson v. Jones, 515 U.S. 394 (1995).

The district court, in its denial of summary judgment, found that a question of fact existed not only in regard to the extent of Ussery’s injuries, but also as to whether the circumstances were sufficient to show force “repugnant to the conscience of mankind,” thus satisfying the standard in Norman. Because the denial of summary judgment was based on the sufficiency of the evidence, the Fourth Circuit found that it was not permitted to review the lower court’s assessment of the factual evidence.

However, the Fourth Circuit inferred that the district court concluded that Ussery could establish a violation of law under Norman. Finding that this was a “purely legal conclusion,” the Court went on to consider whether the district court properly denied Defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

The officers argued that Ussery only suffered de minimis injuries and could not satisfy the Norman standard. The Fourth Circuit disagreed noting that whether a plaintiff’s injuries satisfy the standard depends on the facts of the case. The Court noted that the injuries Ussery claims may have long-term effects and were arguably more severe than injuries previously held to be sufficient for an excessive force claim. Additionally, the Department of Corrections conducted its own investigation, suggesting that the force used could have resulted in sufficiently serious injuries to meet the standard of Norman.

The Fourth Circuit Affirmed the District Court’s Judgment

Interpreting the facts in the light most favorable to Ussery, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Defendants’ motion for summary judgment requested on the basis of qualified immunity.