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Pearson v. Woodson

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

July 2, 2019

MYRON WOODSON, et al., Defendants.



         This matter is before the Court on defendants' motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff has filed a response in opposition and the issues are fully briefed. In addition, both parties filed motions seeking extensions of time. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).

         The events giving rise to this dispute occurred while plaintiff Terry Pearson was incarcerated at Northeast Correctional Center (NECC).[1] He filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the defendants, corrections officers Myron Woodson and Brice Simmons, sprayed him with mace[2] and assaulted him in the course of completing a strip search, in violation of his Eighth Amendment rights. Defendants argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity and move for summary judgment.

         I. Background

         On the morning of July 31, 2017, inmates in NECC's Housing Unit 6 were gathered in the gym building to be strip-searched for weapons following an assault on a female corrections officer. Complaint [Doc. # 1 at ¶¶ 1-2]. Hundreds of inmates were strip-searched that day. See Jason Woodhurst Affidavit at ¶ 4 [Doc. # 75-1 at 23].[3] In his verified complaint, plaintiff alleges that, while waiting to be searched, he asked to use the restroom. He was escorted to a restroom where defendant corrections officers Myron Woodson and Brice Simmons were assigned to search inmates. Complaint at ¶ 3; Defendants' Statement of Uncontroverted Material Facts (SUMF) at ¶ 10. [Doc. # 75-1 at 2]. Both defendants, who normally worked at Moberly Correctional Center, were specially assigned to assist in the searches at NECC and neither one knew plaintiff before this encounter. See Myron Woodson Affidavit at ¶¶ 1, 3-4, 6 [Doc. # 75-1 at 11]; Brice Simmons Affidavit. at ¶¶ 1-3 [Doc. # 75-1 at 16]. Defendants conducted the searches from the hallway outside the bathroom. Woodson visually searched the inmates while Simmons inspected their clothing. Woodson Aff. at ¶ 5; Simmons Aff. at ¶ 4; see also DVD titled “NECC B-Rec Hallway 7-21-17 A.M.” Other inmates waiting to use the bathroom lined up in the gym. Affidavit of Loren Zartler at ¶¶ 4-5 [Doc. # 75-1 at 20].

         Plaintiff alleges in his complaint that defendant Woodson instructed plaintiff to remove his clothing piece by piece. Plaintiff states that, after he removed his socks, he remained standing on top of his shower shoes. When Woodson asked plaintiff for the shoes, plaintiff asked him if he was going to “make him stand barefoot on the dirty restroom floor.” Complaint at ¶¶ 5-6. According to plaintiff, defendant Woodson then placed his hand on his “mace can” and stated, “That wasn't a question, ” and plaintiff gave his shoes to defendant Woodson. Woodson then allegedly directed plaintiff to bend over and cough in a manner that plaintiff described as having “immense sexual overtones” that made him feel embarrassed and uncomfortable. ¶¶ 7-8. While he was dressing again, plaintiff asked Woodson his name but could not understand the response. He asked again while he was putting on his sock. According to plaintiff, Woodson then swore and sprayed plaintiff's face and body with pepper spray. Id. at ¶¶ 9-10. Plaintiff alleges that both defendants then entered the bathroom, struck him, and slammed him into the sink and onto the ground. Plaintiff was cuffed and escorted to another housing unit. Plaintiff states that he was not verbally aggressive and made no attempt to fight back. Id. at ¶¶ 11-12.

         Defendant Woodson testifies by affidavit that he handed plaintiff his underwear and socks after the search was completed. After plaintiff put on his underwear and one sock, he turned around to face Woodson. Plaintiff had what Woodson describes as a “stern look on his face” that conveyed, “If I had the opportunity, I would go at you.” Plaintiff then slapped his hands together once or twice, “hard.” Woodson Aff. at ¶ 7. Woodson told him to finish dressing and plaintiff responded that he did not have to get dressed and started flailing his arms. Id. at ¶ 9. Woodson then showed plaintiff his wrist restraints and directed him to turn around and face away from him. He told plaintiff, “Stand. Put your hands on your head. I will enter the bathroom and apply restraints.” Plaintiff did not comply. Id. at ¶ 9. Woodson again instructed plaintiff to dress and come out and showed him the pepper spray, telling him that he would use it if plaintiff did not dress and come out. According to defendant Woodson, plaintiff was “getting loud, not dressing, not listening.” Id. at ¶ 10. Woodson then “took the aerosol, aimed at the middle of [plaintiff's] face and sprayed for less than a second.” Id. at ¶ 11. Woodson entered the bathroom to restrain plaintiff, but had to slow down because the residue of the spray made his eyes water and his nose run. According to Woodson, he helped plaintiff, who was flailing his arms, to lie down on the floor. Woodson applied restraints, helped plaintiff to stand up, and escorted him out of the bathroom. Woodson denies that he hit or struck plaintiff. Id. at ¶¶ 12-14. Plaintiff had no visible injuries and was breathing and walking without difficulty. He did not voice any complaints about injuries to his ribs or any other part of his body. Woodson wrote a conduct violation against plaintiff for creating a disturbance. Id. at ¶¶ 16-18; see also Conduct Violation Report [Doc. # 1-2 at 1].

         Defendant Simmons testifies by affidavit that he had searched the clothing of five inmates without incident before the search of plaintiff began. According to Simmons, plaintiff threw some of his clothes at Simmons, which Simmons considered aggressive. Simmons Aff. at ¶ 5. Simmons observed as Woodson directed plaintiff to dress and come out, saw plaintiff refuse, saw Woodson show plaintiff the handcuffs and direct him to turn around to be restrained, and saw plaintiff again refuse. Woodson then showed plaintiff the pepper spray and told him he would use it unless plaintiff dressed and came out of the bathroom. Plaintiff refused to dress and Simmons could see other inmates waiting to use the bathroom. Id. at ¶¶ 6-8. Woodson then sprayed plaintiff for less than a second from where he stood in the hallway. Woodson entered the bathroom and helped plaintiff to lie face down on the floor. Plaintiff was flailing his arms, however, and Woodson had difficulty grabbing them. Simmons “reached in the bathroom for a few seconds to hold the arms so that Woodson could grab [plaintiff's] wrists and apply the restraints.” Id. at ¶ 9. Simmons denies striking or hitting plaintiff. Id. at ¶ 10. Simmons had “several good looks” at plaintiff in the hallway and saw no signs of trauma. He did not hear plaintiff complain about any injuries. Id. at ¶ 11.

         Corrections Officer Zartler testifies by affidavit that he was overseeing a line of inmates waiting to use the bathroom. Zartler Aff. at ¶ 4. He saw defendants Woodson and Simmons standing in the hallway outside the bathroom searching an inmate he later learned was plaintiff. Woodson was speaking to plaintiff and directing the search while Simmons searched plaintiff's clothing. Zartler states that plaintiff “was getting louder with Woodson” and that the inmates in the line became aware that “something was going on in the bathroom” that was causing a delay. Id. at ¶¶ 7-9. Zartler approached and looked in the bathroom to see if Woodson needed assistance.[4] He did not see Woodson or Simmons strike or hit plaintiff. The fumes from the pepper spray entered the hallway toward the inmates in line. Id. at 10-11. Zartler, who had a good view of plaintiff after he came out of the bathroom, did not see any evidence of injury. Id. at ¶ 12.

         Corrections Officer Jason Woodhurst was also in the hallway in the vicinity of the bathroom where defendants searched plaintiff. Affidavit of Jason Woodhurst at ¶¶ 5-6 [Doc. # 75-1 at 23]. Woodhurst saw plaintiff as he left the bathroom in restraints. Plaintiff did not have any visible injury and had no difficulty walking or breathing. Id. at ¶ 9. Woodson arranged for plaintiff to be escorted to the medical unit and to Housing Unit 1. Id. at ¶ 10.

         The Court has reviewed a video recording that begins before plaintiff is escorted to the bathroom.[5] The camera is placed in the ceiling of the hallway several feet from the bathroom doorway and does not capture any activity within the bathroom. The events depicted in the video are consistent with the description set forth above. Defendants stood side by side at the bathroom door during the search of plaintiff, with Simmons closer to the camera with Woodson on his far side. Simmons is shown searching plaintiff's clothes while Woodson speaks to plaintiff. The video shows that after some discussion Woodson extended his arm into the bathroom and then immediately entered the bathroom. Simmons bent forward slightly and reached in to the bathroom while using his feet to move plaintiff's clothing out of the doorway. At no time did Simmons enter the bathroom. Zartler and Woodhurst peered in without entering. Nineteen seconds elapsed between when Woodson deployed the pepper spray and plaintiff was escorted out in handcuffs.

         Medical records show that plaintiff was seen on August 1, 2017, the day after the search. He complained of rib pain in his right side. It was observed that plaintiff's breathing was even and unlabored, and there were no visible signs of injury. Four x-rays of plaintiff's right ribs were taken on August 2, 2017. [Doc. # 75-1 at 27-29, 37]. One of the four images showed “a lucency through the anterior aspect of the right seventh rib” that “may represent a nondisplaced fracture. Ribs are otherwise intact.” [Doc. # 75-1 at 37]. Progress notes from medical encounters with plaintiff between August 1st and August 9th indicate that he did not have any complaints or signs of trauma. [Doc. # 75-1 at 29-35].

         Additional facts will be included in the discussion as needed.

         II. ...

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