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Littler v. Martinez

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Terre Haute Division

September 13, 2018

CHRISTOPER MARTINEZ, et al. Defendants.


          Hon. Jone Magnus-Stinson, Chief Judge

         This case presents both the prison system and prisoner litigation at their worst. A reasonable jury could certainly find, based on the evidence provided thus far, that correctional officers at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility intentionally used excessive force against Plaintiff Phillip Littler solely to make him suffer. This includes, but is not limited to, intentionally shooting him in the face with a pepperball gun at point blank range. And the evidence could also support a finding that they did so at the direction of Wabash Valley's Assistant Superintendent. Worse still, several of the defendants attempted before, during, and after the incident to cover it up, including by creating an apparently false incident report and by submitting an arguably false sworn declaration to this Court. They did this without being deterred by their counsel, even after counsel should have known the declaration was contrary to the evidence. The Court hopes that this is an isolated incident of conduct and litigation gone awry, but is gravely concerned that it is not.[1]

         This action began when Mr. Littler, who remains incarcerated at Wabash Valley, filed a pro se Complaint against numerous Wabash Valley staff members who he says routinely use excessive force against him at the direction of their supervisors. At issue in this case is one such instance, which occurred on December 27, 2015. The State Defendants seek summary judgment. In support, they present sworn declarations that they did not use excessive force or see any other correctional officer do so, and the supervisory staff attest that they did not have any involvement in the incident in question.

         At the summary judgment stage of proceedings, the Court of course cannot and does not make factual findings. But the evidence presented by Mr. Littler (some of which was produced by the State Defendants in discovery) paints a bleak picture of inmate treatment at Wabash Valley- from correctional officers to the highest level supervisors. Among other things, the evidence shows that the Assistant Superintendent of Wabash Valley, Frank Littlejohn, suggested to Captain Amanda Pirtle that she shoot Mr. Littler at point blank range with a pepperball gun when he was failing to cooperate with a strip search. She responded that she “love[d]” the idea. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Littler was shot directly in the face with a pepperball gun at point blank range by a correctional officer.

         This and other evidence strongly supports a finding that the malicious use of force was not only accepted by supervisory personnel, but directed by them. Mr. Littler's willful choice not to obey basic orders of correctional staff may well be frustrating to them, and his past attempts to escape undoubtedly justify restrictive conditions and careful monitoring. But the Eighth Amendment exists precisely to protect those like Mr. Littler-specifically, individuals whom prison staff are inclined to punish by intentionally inflicting pain upon them whenever they so choose.

         The purposeful and unnecessary violence against Mr. Littler is undoubtedly the worst part of this case from his perspective. But the apparent efforts-before, during, and after the uses of force-to cover it up are nearly as troubling from the Court's perspective. As detailed below, there is evidence that correctional staff knew they should have videoed the use of the chemical agent and pepperball gun on Mr. Littler, but did not. Although they videoed the subsequent use of the cell extraction team, during critical portions of the incident-when Mr. Littler says he was repeatedly punched in the head-the camera's view is obstructed by a correctional officer.

         The cover up not only involved ensuring there was no video evidence of the incidents, but also filing what is quite possibly a false report after the fact. The pepperball gun report submitted by the officer who shot Mr. Littler states that he was shooting the pepperball gun into the wall when Mr. Littler moved his face into the line of fire. Again, although the Court cannot make factual findings at this stage, this report is implausible on its face. Given that the evidence supports the conclusion Assistant Superintendent Littlejohn directed Mr. Littler to be shot at point blank range, the odds that the correctional officer shooting Mr. Littler had no intent to do so are vanishingly small.

         Regrettably, the cover up appears to have continued during this litigation. Assistant Superintendent Littlejohn submitted a declaration under penalty of perjury stating, among other things, that he did not order the cell extraction on December 27, 2015, and instead, the only order he issued was for Mr. Littler's cell to be inspected weekly. These statements are unsupportable, given that Assistant Superintendent Littlejohn's emails show he directed Mr. Littler to be shot with the pepperball gun at “no minimum distance.” Worse still, having filed what is seemingly false evidence in support of the State Defendants' motion for summary judgment, counsel for the State Defendants did nothing to correct the representation to the Court once these emails came to light. Instead, a reply brief was filed that ignored these emails and insisted that summary judgment was still warranted.

         This conduct by Assistant Superintendent Littlejohn and the State Defendants' counsel implicates the Court's inherent authority and that provided by Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Our system of justice depends on the honesty of its participants, as many cases hinge on it. See Secrease v. Western & Southern Life Ins. Co., 800 F.3d 397, 402 (7th Cir. 2015) (“[F]alsifying evidence to secure a court victory undermines the most basic foundations of our judicial system.”). This is equally true, if not more so, when defendants and their counsel are representatives of the government, litigating against a pro se prisoner who does not have the same ability to marshal evidence to support his claims as individuals who are not incarcerated or have counsel. Notably, Mr. Littler only obtained the emails revealing the State Defendants' troubling conduct after his discovery request for them was rejected by the State Defendants' counsel on grounds the Court later determined were insufficient, and the Court granted his motion to compel.

         For the reasons explained in more detail below, the State Defendants' motions for summary judgment are denied except as to defendant David Smith, who Mr. Littler acknowledges had nothing to do with the incident in question. Separate show cause orders will issue to Assistant Superintendent Littlejohn and the State Defendants' counsel, which will provide an opportunity to show cause why they should not be sanctioned for their conduct during this litigation.


         Summary Judgment Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate when the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). A “material fact” is one that “might affect the outcome of the suit.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). To survive a motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party must set forth specific, admissible evidence showing that there is a material issue for trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The Court views the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draws all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Darst v. Interstate Brands Corp., 512 F.3d 903, 907 (7th Cir. 2008). It cannot weigh evidence or make credibility determinations on summary judgment because those tasks are left to the fact-finder. O'Leary v. Accretive Health, Inc., 657 F.3d 625, 630 (7th Cir. 2011).

         A dispute about a material fact is genuine only “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. If no reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party, then there is no “genuine” dispute. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007).



         Mr. Littler filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the following State Defendants: Superintendent Richard Brown, Assistant Superintendent Frank Littlejohn, Major Dusty Russell, Captain Amanda Pirtle, Lieutenant Yarber, Christopher Martinez, Blake Scarbrough, Israel Brewer, Justin Shroyer, Mark Shroyer, Ryan Bottoms, Skyler Thacker, Kirby McKee, David Smith, and Denver Smith.[2] The Court permitted Eighth Amendment excessive force and failure to intervene claims to proceed against these defendants in their individual capacities.

         The following facts are drawn from either the undisputed or indisputable evidence or, if disputed, the evidence taken in the light most favorable to Mr. Littler, as the foregoing standard of review requires. Given this standard, nothing in the Court's analysis should be construed as findings of fact.

         A. Uses of Force Against Mr. Littler

         The details of the uses of force against Mr. Littler on the day in question are critical to understanding both the Court's ruling on the motions for summary judgment and why sanctions may be warranted, so they are set forth below. They include three separate incidents of force, all of which occurred on December 27, 2015, while Mr. Littler was in the shower cell and refusing to submit to a strip search: repeated spraying of Mr. Littler with a chemical agent, shooting Mr. Littler with a pepperball gun, and a physically assaulting Mr. Littler when correctional officers entered the shower.

         On the day in question, Mr. Littler was escorted to the shower cell for a strip search at approximately 11:15 a.m. The State Defendants maintain that the strip search was necessary due to concerns that Mr. Littler possessed a cell phone or other electronic device. But Mr. Littler attests that this concern was a false pretext used by defendant Justin Shroyer-against whom Mr. Littler had recently filed a grievance-in order to “degrade” Mr. Littler. Filing No. 173 at 2. Mr. Littler was placed in the shower cell, but refused to submit to a strip search. Capitan Pirtle arrived and spoke with Mr. Littler, but he continued to refuse to submit to a strip search.

         Assistant Superintendent Littlejohn foreswore any involvement in the subsequent uses of force against Mr. Littler. His declaration sworn under penalty of perjury provides, in relevant part, as follows:

15.1 was not directly involved in the ceil extraction on December 27, 2015, 1 did not order the cell extraction or participate in the cell extraction. The only order I issued was for Phillip Littler's cell to be inspected weekly for the safety and security of the facility.

Filing No. 88-2 at 3. After this declaration was filed, Mr. Littler obtained through discovery several emails related to the shower cell extraction, one of which shows that Assistant Superintendent Littlejohn's ...

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