Friday, July 10, 2020

Inmate beating case will to the jury

This inmate wins his appeal in the Second Circuit, convincing the Court of Appeals that he has an excessive force claim against his jailers.

The case is Randolph v. Griffin, a summary order issued on June 2. Plaintiff says defendants came to his cell, handcuffed him, directed him to turn around and then punched and kicked him in the face and about the body. And they also attacked him with a baton. Then the officers took him to the showers where they punched him in the head. Defendants claim, on contrast, that plaintiff had aggressively raised his hands toward them and tried to hit one of them, requiring then to use some force (body holds) to prevent him from attacking them.

Since we have such contrasting accounts of how plaintiff suffered his injuries, how did a case like this get dismissed on summary judgment? It looks like the trial court said plaintiff's testimony cannot be credited because there was no corroboration. But that argument cannot work. Under settled precedent, like Fincher v. Depository Tr. & Clearing Corp., 604 F.3d 712 (2d Cir. 2010), even uncorroborated, sworn testimony is enough to bring your case to the jury, unless of course the testimony is so contradictory and confused that no jury in its right mind would credit any of it. But such cases are rare. Since plaintiff's testimony in this dispute was always consistent and detailed, he can bring his case to trial.

The trial court also violated a cardinal rule of summary judgment practice: crediting the defendants' accounts over those of the plaintiff. It is not the district court's job to weigh witness credibility. The Second Circuit cites Jeffries v. City of New York, 426 F.3d 549 (2d Cir. 2005), for this proposition, but there are zillions of cases that stand for this proposition. While the district court said that "the record evidence of Randolph's injuries is more consistent with Defendants' version," that was error. As the Court of Appeals said in Fincher, "he said, she said" cases cannot be resolved on a motion for summary judgment.

Finally, the district court got it wrong in holding that plaintiff's version of events, being struck with a baton and assaulted while in handcuffs, was justified as a matter of law. Rather, the Court of Appeals says, the jury may find this was sadistic or malicious, the standard guiding excessive force claims under the Eighth Amendment. The Court of Appeals notes that it has reversed the grant of summary judgment in prisoner excessive force cases even where "the plaintiff's evidence of injury was slight and the proof of excessive force was weak." The Court cites Harris v. Miller, 818 F.3d 49 (2d Cir. 2016), for that proposition.

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