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Ellis v. Pryor

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

January 16, 2020

DEMAJIO J. ELLIS, Plaintiff,
v.
SERGEANT PRYOR, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          PHILIP P. SIMON JUDGE

         Demajio J. Ellis is a prisoner who is proceeding without a lawyer in this case against two correctional officers. He was granted leave to proceed “against Sergeant Pryor in his individual capacity for monetary damages for using excessive force against him on June 10, 2016, ” and leave to proceed “against [Sergeant] Flakes in her individual capacity for monetary damages for failing to intervene in Sergeant Pryor's use of excessive force on June 10, 2016.” ECF 10 at 4. The Defendants have filed a motion for summary judgment, which is now fully briefed. ECF 77, ECF 83.

         Factual Background[1]

         On June 10, 2016, Ellis, who was housed at the Westville Correctional Facility, refused to remove his arms from the cuff port in his cell. ECF 78-1 at 3, 5; ECF 83 at 2. Ellis states he was “peacefully requesting” to speak with a shift supervisor; he insists he made no threats to anyone. ECF 83 at 2. What's more, he tells me that he posed no risk of harm to himself or anyone else. Id. Nonetheless, suddenly and for reasons that are unclear (if one believes Ellis), a team of officers including Sergeant Flakes and Sergeant Pryor was deployed to resolve the situation. ECF 78-1 at 5. For their part, the defendants offer no evidence that Ellis was posing a risk to anyone during the encounter. And in all events, as I just noted, Ellis disputes any such claim.

         Sergeant Flakes states that Ellis was given several additional commands to comply once the team arrived, but he refused. ECF 78-1 at 7. Ellis, on the other hand, attests that Sergeant Pryor “began to get hostile quick” as soon as he arrived on the scene. ECF 83 at 2. According to Ellis, although the officers had “regular” pepper spray on their persons, Sergeant Pryor directed Sergeant Flakes to “go get the strong spray.” Id. at 3; ECF 84 at 1. She did so and returned with the “'big' can that look[s] like a ‘fire distrigusher' (sic) that is meant for a crowd of people in riots only . . ..” ECF 83 at 3. For purposes of this motion, it is undisputed that Sergeant Pryor sprayed Ellis with the pepper spray for approximately “4 to 6 seconds or more.” Id.; ECF 84 at 1; see also ECF 78 at 3 n.2. Ellis had a sheet over his head during this time. ECF 78-1 at 5.

         According to Sergeant Pryor, another order was given for Ellis to release the cuff port, and, when he did not comply, he deployed a taser onto Ellis's right wrist. ECF 78-1 at 5. Ellis then released the cuff port, and another officer pushed his hands back into his cell. Id. It is unclear how much time elapsed between the use of the pepper spray and the deployment of the taser, but Ellis suggests that it was approximately one minute and states that the taser was deployed “without warning” and “for no reason.” Id. at 4; ECF 83 at 3. It is undisputed that the officers never physically attempted to close the cuff port until after the taser was deployed. ECF 78-1 at 8; ECF 83 at 3. Ellis claims that he heard Sergeant Pryor laughing about the incident afterwards and that he has had “issues” with Sergeant Pryor in the past. ECF 83 at 3; ECF 84 at 2. Ellis was left suffocating in his cell alone for approximately one hour until he was removed and “decontaminated.” ECF 83 at 3. The spray made him “burn, ” his skin was swollen, and a small scar is still visible on Ellis's wrist where he was struck by the taser. ECF 78 at 3 (citing ECF 9 at 5).

         Discussion

         Summary judgment must be granted when “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A genuine dispute of material fact exists when “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Not every dispute between the parties makes summary judgment inappropriate; “[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Id. To determine whether a genuine dispute of material fact exists, the court must construe all facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Ogden v. Atterholt, 606 F.3d 355, 358 (7th Cir. 2010)

         Excessive Force Claim Against Sergeant Pryor

         Jails are dangerous places, and security officials are tasked with the difficult job of preserving order among inmates. Lewis v. Downey, 581 F.3d 467, 476 (7th Cir. 2009). It is important that prisoners follow orders given by guards. Id. at 476-77 (citing Soto v. Dickey, 744 F.2d 1260, 1267 (7th Cir. 1984)). To compel compliance-especially in situations where officers or other inmates are faced with threats, disruption, or aggression-the use of summary physical force is often warranted. Id. at 477 (citing Hickey v. Reeder, 12 F.3d 754, 759 (8th Cir. 1993)). Neither the use of a taser nor pepper spray against an inmate under such circumstances constitutes a per se violation of the Eighth Amendment. See Id. at 475-76; see also Soto, 744 F.2d at 1271.

         But this is not to say that such justification exists “every time an inmate is slow to comply with an order.” Lewis, 581 F.3d at 477. Accordingly, the “core requirement” for any excessive force claim in this context is that the defendant “used force not in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, but maliciously and sadistically to cause harm.” Hendrickson v. Cooper, 589 F.3d 887, 890 (7th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “A court should examine a variety of factors in conducting this inquiry, including the need for an application of force, the relationship between that need and the force applied, the threat reasonably perceived by the responsible officers, the efforts made to temper the severity of the force employed, and the extent of the injury suffered by the prisoner.” DeWalt v. Carter, 224 F.3d 607, 619 (7th Cir. 2000). The appropriateness of the use of force is determined by an examination of the particular facts and circumstances of each case. Soto, 744 F.2d at 1270.

         Here the Defendants argue that the use of force was performed in good faith, rather than with a malicious or sadistic intent. They stress the fact that Ellis refused to comply with orders to remove his hands from the cuff port, and contend that the amount of force employed in response was necessary, reasonable, and de minimis. As an initial matter, it is a little hard to swallow that the force here was tiny. If one believes Ellis, it is anything but that. I note that the Seventh Circuit has held that “the use of a taser gun against a prisoner is more than a de minimis application of force.” Lewis, 581 F.3d at 475. And because Ellis has presented evidence that he posed no threat to the officers or anyone else, if that is believed, this would tend to show that Sergeant Pryor employed the pepper spray in a manner greater than necessary. See e.g. Soto, 744 F.2d at 1270 (noting that the use of “mace or other chemical agents in quantities greater than necessary” violates the Eighth Amendment).

         As noted, the core issue is whether the use of force demonstrated actual malice or a sadistic purpose on the part of Sergeant Pryor. Many of the facts relevant to this inquiry are disputed, and those disputes must be resolved in Ellis's favor at this stage. For example, as to necessity, it is true that Ellis admits he refused to remove his hands from the cuff port. However, the Defendants' suggestion that every time an order is disobeyed, it must result in the use of force is an overly broad interpretation of the law. See Lewis, 581 F.3d at 477. According to Ellis's version of events, he was peacefully requesting to speak with a shift supervisor but was not given an adequate opportunity to comply with the order because Sergeant Pryor immediately became hostile when he arrived on the scene. In other words, if one were to believe Ellis, he was posing no threat to anyone when he was suddenly attacked with a chemical agent. Additionally, after he was pepper sprayed, he was summarily electrocuted with a taser without warning -- all the while continuing to pose no threat of harm to anyone. The Defendants, on the other hand, assert that Ellis was given multiple opportunities to comply and that specific warnings were given before both the pepper spray and the taser were deployed. In other words, there is a simple dispute of fact over whether Ellis was warned of the impending attack.

         There are similar disputes of fact over the threat perceived by the officers. Ellis insists that his actions were neither aggressive nor threatening; the Defendants, however, disagree. “In cases upholding the use of taser guns, the victims have been violent, aggressive, confrontational, unruly, or presented an immediate risk of danger to themselves or others.” Lewis, 581 F.3d at 477. As Ellis tells the story, the type of behavior deemed troublesome enough to warrant the application of such force is nonexistent in this case. See id. at 477-78 (collecting cases and emphasizing the ...


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