Recently defendants in excessive force claimed have offered this defense: "Even if I pushed the guy on the ground, his injuries weren't bad. Thus, the excessive force claim should be dismissed." Shouldn't the degree of plaintiff's injuries go to damages rather than liability? Amazingly, some courts are receptive to de minimus injury argument.
Imagine if, in a criminal assault case, a defendant said, "Sure, I pushed him up against the wall. It's not like I hurt him that badly." Arguments that would earn a criminal defendant a tongue lashing become persuasive when made by a police officer who has been sued for excessive force.
Today, in Morrison v. Board of Trustees of Green Township, No. 08-3051 (6th Cir. Oct. 8, 2009) (here), a unanimous three-judge panel rejected "a blanket de minimis injury requirement for excessive force claims." Slip op. at *16. In Morrison, the police officer allegedly pushed a handcuffed woman on the ground. The Sixth Circuit held that a police officer who wantonly inflicts punishment cannot defend himself by claiming, "I only hurt the plaintiff a little." Wrote the court:
"Gratuitous violence" inflicted upon an incapacitated detainee constitutes an excessive use of force, even when the injuries suffered are not substantial. See, e.g., Pigram ex rel. Pigram v. Chaudoin, 199 F. App’x 509, 513 (6th Cir. 2006). In Pigram, it was alleged that the defendant police officer slapped the handcuffed plaintiff in the face because the latter was being unruly and had a “smart-ass mouth.” Id. at 513. Finding the defendant’s conduct to be unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment for the purposes of summary judgment, Pigram emphasized that a “slap to the face of a handcuffed suspect – even a verbally unruly suspect – is not a reasonable means of achieving anything more than perhaps further antagonizing or humiliating the suspect.” Id. The Court reached this conclusion notwithstanding the relatively minimal use of force applied and the absence of any resulting injury. See id. (stating “under specific circumstances, a slap may constitute a sufficiently obvious constitutional violation” even if “involv[ing] less physical force than a ‘tackle’”).Id. at *17.
The officer also allegedly tightened the handcuffs, cutting off the circulation of the plaintiff's wrists. In denying qualified immunity in an excessive force claim, gave us a helpful summary of the law of tight handcuffs:
In order for a handcuffing claim to survive summary judgment, a plaintiff must offer sufficient evidence to create a genuine issueof material fact that: (1) he or she complained the handcuffs were too tight; (2) the officer ignored those complaints; and (3) the plaintiff experienced "some physical injury" resulting from the handcuffing. See Lyons v. City of Xenia, 417 F.3d 565, 575-76 (6th Cir. 2005).Slip op. at *8. How much of an injury is required in order to state a claim for excessive force based on tight handcuffs?
The remaining, and most contentious, issue on appeal with respect to the handcuffing claim is whether Amanda alleged an adequate physical injury to preclude summary judgment. In finding Amanda met this requirement, the district court relied on Cynthia’s testimony that the handcuffs were so tight that "[Amanda's] skin was all pinched over and it was turning black and blue." Although not specifically mentioned by the district court, there was also evidence that there were "marks" on Amanda’s wrists as a result of the handcuffing. Specifically, Amanda explained to an inquiring paramedic that the marks on her wrists were from the handcuffs. Officer Celender argues that allegations of bruising and wrist marks alone are, as a matter of law, insufficient to establish a "physical injury." We disagree.Slip op. at *9 (citations omitted). Bottom line? "[B]ruising, skin marks, and attendant pain allegedly suffered by Amanda during the forty to fifty minutes she was handcuffed creates a genuine issue of material fact regarding the existence of an injury." Id. at *10.