response by utilizing other non-forcible means available to him,
and that Plaintiff behaved in a disrespectful manner towards
Defendant, the Court concludes that Defendant's sole motivation
for striking Plaintiff was to wantonly inflict pain on him
because of Defendant's anger at Plaintiff's attitude.
2. Objective Component
The objective component of the Eighth Amendment test focuses on
the harm done; but the amount of harm that must be shown depends
on the nature of the claim. See Sims, 230 F.3d at 20. The
objective component is "contextual and responsive to contemporary
standards of decency." Hudson, 503 U.S. at 8, 112 S.Ct. 995. Of
course "[n]ot every push or shove, even if it may later seem
unnecessary in the peace of the judge's chambers, violates a
prisoner's constitutional rights." Johnson v. Glick,
481 F.2d 1028, 1033 (2d Cir. 1973). As such, an allegation that indicates
only a de minimis use of force will "rarely suffice to state a
constitutional claim," Sims, 230 F.3d at 22 (quoting Romano v.
Howarth, 998 F.2d 101, 105 (2d Cir. 1993)), unless the use of
force is the "sort repugnant to the conscience of mankind," Id.
(quoting Hudson, 503 U.S. at 10, 112 S.Ct. 995). Accordingly,
if a prison guard subjects a prisoner to excessive force, and
does so maliciously and sadistically, the prison guard violates
the prisoner's Eighth Amendment rights. Id.
In this case, the prisoner was unable to show any serious
injury resulting from Defendant's strikes to his head. The
testimony at trial indicated that the strikes to his head were
either three open-fisted slaps or three-closed fisted strikes.
Regardless, of whether the strikes were open-fisted or
closed-fisted, given the lack of any visible injury to Plaintiff,
the Court concludes that Defendant's application of force against
Plaintiff was de minimis.
Nevertheless, even this de minimis use of force against
Plaintiff was "repugnant to the conscience of mankind" because
Defendant struck Plaintiff out of anger and frustration in a
situation where all parties admit that force was not necessary.
Particularly relevant to this inquiry is the fact that, as
Superintendent Quinones testified, prison regulations expressly
proscribe using force against prisoners in the manner which
Defendant used force against Plaintiff and Defendant could have
easily controlled Plaintiff by using other non-forcible means. In
this Court's view, even one slap against a prisoner is
objectively unreasonable and "repugnant to the conscience of
mankind" when, as here, the prisoner presents no threat to prison
guards or others, poses no security risk, and does not otherwise
pose a danger to himself.
Conceding the paramount importance of maintaining security and
discipline within the confines of a prison, the Court must hold
prison guards to an objectively reasonable standard of behavior.
This objectively reasonable standard of behavior, by its very
definition, as the Supreme Court has long recognized, prohibits
guards from maliciously, sadistically, or wantonly slapping,
striking, kicking, or punching prisoners simply because a
prisoner shows a disrespectful attitude towards the guard. See
Hudson, 503 U.S. at 9, 112 S.Ct. 995. Since Defendant here
behaved in a wanton and malicious manner when he struck Plaintiff
with no provocation and no need to use force, the Court finds
that he behaved in an objectively unreasonable manner. Of course
this finding is not designed, nor should it be read, to provide
shelter to prisoners who think that they can taunt, abuse, and
goad prison guards into physically striking them with the
expectation that the Courts will reward them with substantial
awards for their misbehavior. Rather, when as here, all parties
admit that no amount of force was needed to maintain discipline
and security within the prison, guards cannot physically assault
prisoners simply because they are angry at them.
B. Qualified Immunity
The affirmative defense of qualified immunity "shields public
officials from liability for their discretionary acts that do
`not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional
rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'" Hathaway
v. Coughlin, 37 F.3d 63, 67 (2d Cir. 1994) (quoting Harlow v.
Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396
(1982)). In short, the Constitutional right "must be sufficiently
definite so that the official understood that his actions
violated it or, in other words, that the unlawfulness of his
actions was evident." Eng v. Coughlin, 858 F.2d 889, 895 (2d
Cir. 1988). To determine whether a particular right was clearly
established at the time of the alleged violation, courts should
(1) whether the right in question was defined with
"reasonable specificity;" (2) whether the decisional
law of the Supreme Court and the applicable circuit
court support the existence of the right in question;
and (3) whether under preexisting law a reasonable
defendant official would have understood that his or
her acts were unlawful.
Jermosen v. Smith, 945 F.2d 547, 550 (2d Cir. 1991).
Defendant, in his post trial brief, claims that he is entitled
to qualified immunity. Defendant argues, in part on the basis of
cases distinguishable from the one here, that the law in this
circuit concerning the de minimis use of force is so unsettled
that a reasonable officer would not know that he violated
Plaintiff's rights by slapping or striking him in the head three
times in response to his insubordination. Compare Brown v.
Croce, 967 F. Supp. 101, 104 (S.D.N.Y. 1997) (two slaps to the
head constituted de minimis force and were not actionable) with
Jones v. Huff, 789 F. Supp. 526, 536 (N.D.N.Y. 1992) (two kicks
to prisoner's buttocks causing no injury were actionable). This
Court disagrees with Defendant.
First, Defendant's concession at trial that no amount of force
was needed or appropriate to control the situation with Plaintiff
belies the fact that he knew, and a reasonable officer would have
understood, that his actions were unlawful. Second,
Superintendent Quinones' testimony that the use of force in this
situation to subdue Plaintiff would have resulted in
administrative sanctions against Defendant also supports the fact
that Defendant knew that his actions were unlawful. Finally,
Defendant's reliance on Brown, 967 F. Supp. 101 and its progeny
to assert that the case law regarding the wanton application of a
de minimis amount of force against a prisoner is unavailing.
The Supreme Court and this Circuit, as already discussed, have
long held that contemporary standards of decency are always
violated when a prison guard wantonly applies force to a prisoner
to cause harm regardless of whether significant injury is
evident. See Hudson, 503 U.S. at 9, 112 S.Ct. 995; Griffin v.
Crippen, 193 F.3d 89, 91 (2d Cir. 1999). In Brown, the Court
recognized this well settled rule but nevertheless concluded that
the Defendant did not have the requisite "wanton" state of mind
necessary to make out an Eighth Amendment claim when he slapped
Plaintiff twice. See Brown, 967 F. Supp. at 104. The Court
concluded that Plaintiff's alleged drunkenness as well as the
fact that he was found guilty of a Tier II violation for
harassing and interfering with a Corrections Officer indicated
that the officer
"belies an [sic] rational inference that [Defendant] was acting
with a wanton state of mind." Id.
In this case, Plaintiff was not drunk and did not interfere
with an officer. Instead, he simply mouthed off to Defendant and
Defendant hit him in response. Given these facts, the well
settled case law regarding per se violations of the Eighth
Amendment, and this Court's findings that Defendant acted with a
wanton state of mind, the Court holds that Plaintiff's rights
were defined by the case law of this Circuit with reasonable
specificity and that a reasonable officer in Defendant's position
would have understood that his acts were unlawful. Consequently,
he is not entitled to qualified immunity for his actions against
In light of the above findings and conclusions, an award of
damages to Plaintiff is appropriate to compensate him for his
pain and suffering caused by his injuries. See Jones, 789
F. Supp. at 537. This award of damages, though, must be tempered
by the fact that Plaintiff failed to prove any permanent hearing
loss or other long term injury at trial. Instead, the only injury
proven by a preponderance of the evidence is the immediate
physical and emotional pain Plaintiff occasioned due to the three
smacks Defendant inflicted upon him.
Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA"), when a
prisoner seeks damages for mental or emotional injury, he must
also make a prior showing of physical injury. See Jenkins v.
Haubert, 179 F.3d 19, 28 (2d Cir. 1999). The Court finds that
although the physical injuries Defendant suffered were minor,
they do satisfy the physical injury requirement of the PLRA.
Therefore, Plaintiff is entitled to recover damages for the
physical injuries he suffered in the amount of $100 and $900 for
the emotional pain and suffering he experiences as a result of
The Court also finds that Plaintiff is entitled to an award of
punitive damages from Defendant. An award of punitive damages is
appropriate "when the defendant's conduct is shown to be
motivated by evil motive or intent, or when it involves reckless
or callous indifference to the federally protected rights of
others." Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30, 56, 103 S.Ct. 1625, 75
L.Ed.2d 632 (1983); see McCardle v. Haddad, 131 F.3d 43, 53-54
(2d Cir. 1997). Defendant's motive in this case exhibited a
wanton disregard of Plaintiff's rights given his admissions at
trial and the fact that his actions were prohibited by prison
regulations. At the same time, given the lack of severity of
Plaintiff's injuries and Defendant's long standing record of
service to the Department of Corrections, the Court holds that
Plaintiff is entitled to an award of $500 in punitive damages
Accordingly, it is hereby
ORDERED that the Clerk of the Court enter judgment on behalf of
Plaintiff for his Eighth Amendment claim; and it is further
ORDERED that Defendant pay Plaintiff $1,000 in compensatory
damages and $500 in punitive damages; and it is further
ORDERED that the Clerk of the Court enter judgment on behalf of
Defendant as to Plaintiff's Fourteenth Amendment claim; and it is
ORDERED that the Clerk of the Court serve a copy of this Order
on all parties by mail.
IT IS SO ORDERED.