Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Pro se inmate wins excessive force appeal against correction officer

The Court of Appeals has reinstated an excessive force claim brought by a pro se inmate who claims that a correction officer broke his finger while trying to restrain him at the jail. 

The case is Bradshaw v. City of New York, a summary order issued on March 29. Excessive force claims usually involve divergent testimony from plaintiff and defendant about what happened leading up to the use of force, as well as the amount of force used. That's why these cases are sometimes not suitable for summary judgment and a jury must decide who is telling the truth, even if it has to weigh credibility between an inmate and a law enforcement officer. 

Plaintiff sues two officers here. The first officer, Loesch, cannot be liable, the Court of Appeals (Katzmann, Lynch and Nardini) says, because there is no dispute that plaintiff refused to interlace his fingers behind his head when Loesch ordered him to do so, "and the split-second decision to bring Bradshaw to the ground and subdue him to eliminate the security risk that the officers believed he posed was not excessive." 

What about plaintiff's clam that the Loesch punched him in the face when plaintiff was on the ground? As the Court notes, plaintiff's sworn testimony "sharply conflicts with that of the officer defendants." That evidentiary dispute often places such a claim before the jury. Not this one. While a single witness's testimony can be enough to force a jury trial on liability, see e.g. Holtz v. Rockefeller, 258 F.3d 62, 78 (2d Cir. 2001), that argument will not work if video evidence conclusively proves what happened. The case for that is Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007). The video evidence dooms plaintiff's claim, as it proves that Loesch did not punch him. Medical records also do not show bruising on the part of plaintiff's face where he claims the officer punched him.

But plaintiff wins the appeal against defendant Tebbens. Plaintiff says Tebbins broke his finger. The medical evidence actually proves there was no broken finger, but plaintiff did  testify that this officer threatened to break his finger and then twisted and bent it painfully. That gratuitous use of force can give rise to an excessive force claim. While there is video of this incident. the footage does not conclusively prove what happened one way or the other. This means the jury must decide what happens. Bradshaw will get his excessive force trial against Tebbins.

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