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Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reverses summary judgment for defendant correctional officers in excessive force civil rights lawsuit filed by Florida inmate

On April 24, 2019, in Sears v. Roberts, et al., No. 15-15080, the Eleventh Circuit of Appeals reversed a district court’s summary judgment in favor of the defendant state correctional officers in a civil rights lawsuit brought by a Florida state inmate under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983.  The Eleventh Circuit determined that the district court had applied the wrong standard for evaluating the evidence on a summary judgment motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56.  Instead of viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, as is required under Rule 56, the district court accepted as true the correctional officers’ version of events, relying exclusively on the facts set forth in their affidavits and in the prison disciplinary reports, prison medical records, and other prison records the officers submitted.  The defendants argued that the district court was justified in rejecting the plaintiff’s version of the events because of Eleventh Circuit precedent holding that a  plaintiff’s testimony can be discounted on summary judgment if it is “blatantly contradicted by the record, blatantly inconsistent, or incredible as a matter of law, meaning that it relates to facts that could not have possibly been observed or events that are contrary to the laws of nature.” Feliciano v. City of Miami Beach, 707 F.3d 1244, 1253 (11th Cir. 2013).  The Eleventh Circuit found Feliciano inapplicable to the current case, which involved non-conclusory descriptions of discrete facts that were simply denied by the correctional officers. 

The Eleventh Circuit speculated that the district court’s error may have occurred because of a mistaken reliance on another Eleventh Circuit precedent, O’Bryant v. Finch, 637 F.3d 1207 (11th Cir. 2011), in which the Court held that if a prisoner is found guilty of an actual disciplinary infraction after being afforded due process and there was evidence to support the disciplinary panel’s fact finding, the prisoner cannot later state a retaliation claim against the prison employee who reported the infraction in a disciplinary report. Like the prisoner in O’Bryant, the inmate in this case had been determined by a disciplinary panel to have violated a prison rule (battery on a law enforcement officer). The Eleventh Circuit distinguished this case on the basis that the success of the plaintiff’s case did not depend upon a finding that the disciplinary panel was wrong.  In a separate concurrence, Judge Martin opined that O’Bryan was wrongly decided and noted that the Third, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits have all taken a view contrary to the Eleventh Circuit.  See Maben v. Thelen, 887 F.3d 252, 261–63 (6th Cir. 2018); Watson v. Rozum, 834 F.3d 417, 426 (3d Cir. 2016); Bruce v. Ylst, 351 F.3d 1283, 1289 (9th Cir. 2003); Woods v. Smith, 60 F.3d 1161, 1166 (5th Cir. 1995); Cain v. Lane, 857 F.2d 1139, 1145 (7th Cir. 1988); but see Requena v. Roberts, 893 F.3d 1195, 1211 (10th Cir. 2018); Henderson v. Baird, 29 F.3d 464, 469 (8th Cir. 1994). Judge Martin suggested that when the appropriate case presents itself, an en banc panel of the Court should review its previous holding and consider overruling it.