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Herron v. Meyer

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

April 25, 2016

Brian Herron, Plaintiff Appellant,
Douglas Meyer, Defendant Appellee.

Submitted March 18, 2016

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Terre Haute Division. No. 2:13cv109JMSWGH - Jane E. Magnus Stinson, Judge.

Before Bauer, Easterbrook, and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

Easterbrook, Circuit Judge.

In this Bivens suit, Brian Herron, a disabled federal prisoner, accuses guard Douglas Meyer of transferring him to a cell that the guard knew was likely to cause him injury. Meyer did this, Herron alleges, because he disliked the fact that Herron had filed grievances and had refused to share a cell with an inmate who he thought endangered him. Herron maintains that Meyer vio lated the First and Eighth Amendments. The district court dismissed the First Amendment theory and held that the guard is entitled to qualified immunity on the Eighth Amendment theory. 2014 U.S. Dist. Lexis 20865 (S.D. Ind. Feb. 20, 2014) at *7–9 (First Amendment); 2015 U.S. Dist. Lexis 28263 (S.D. Ind. Mar. 9, 2015) (Eighth Amendment).

We report the facts of record in the light most favorable to Herron. A former gang member, he is serving long sentences for bank robbery and other crimes. Before his transfer to the prison at Terre Haute, where the events we narrate occurred, he had been attacked by other inmates at a different prison and left permanently disabled. He is confined to a wheelchair and is incontinent, though usually he has a brief time to make it to a toilet before soiling himself. When arriving at Terre Haute, Herron was assigned to a cell designed for wheelchair bound inmates. Among other features, the cell has grab bars that inmates can use to transfer safely from a wheelchair to a bed or toilet; it also has a shower that the occupant can use to clean up if he does not make it to the toilet in time.

Herron originally believed that the persons who injured him did so as part of gang warfare, but he was told by some inmates at Terre Haute that he had been targeted because they believed him to be a pedophile. Herron checked and found that, indeed, his prison records contained references to the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 16901–91, even though his convictions are for other crimes. He filed a grievance asking the prison to correct his records and a request under the Privacy Act asking the Bureau of Prisons to do so. The Bureau made the change, but the news may not have reached the prison until after the events we narrate.

On being told that some other inmates, believing him to be a child molester, were planning to attack him anew, he asked to be placed in segregation. The prison complied. The segregation unit has wheelchair accessible cells, and Herron was assigned to one. Another inmate joined him a few days later (it was a twoperson cell), and within the month attacked him over his "Walsh Act stuff." The attacker was removed, and Herron again had the cell to himself.

Before the month was out, Meyer arrived with a new cellmate for Herron. The two prisoners discussed whether they could tolerate each other, and when the newcomer told Herron that he was being moved because he had just attacked his former cellmate, Herron objected. Meyer took the other prisoner away, then came back and took Herron away. Meyer demanded of Herron to know "what your problem is" and, when Herron replied that he just wanted to be safe, Meyer replied: "Well, don't you have a Walsh Act assignment? We didn't put it on you here at Terre Haute, so quit filing." Visibly angry, Meyer continued: "you are not going to sit in my [special housing unit] living high on the hog. I have something in store for you."

Having said that, Meyer and some other guards carried Herron to a non-wheelchair-accessible cell. It lacked grab bars, it lacked a shower, and it had a concrete bed that a wheelchair-bound inmate would find hard to use. Herron protested, but Meyer replied that he would be in that cell for "the next couple of days or so" and warned Herron not to "hit the duress button unless it was a life-threatening situation." When Herron next needed to use the toilet, he asked guards for help. They refused. Without the aid of grab bars, Herron fell when trying to get out of his wheelchair and struck his head. He was found lying helpless with his head near the toilet. He was taken to a hospital and treated for injuries that included a laceration to his temple, a contusion to one shoulder, and a sprained spine.

The district court analyzed Herron's Eighth Amendment theory as if he were contending that the Constitution requires grab bars for all wheelchair-bound inmates, all the time. Finding that it does not-and adding that Meyer likely anticipated that other guards would help Herron use the toilet in his new cell-the court concluded that Meyer is entitled to qualified immunity.

Some of Herron's argument reads like an appeal to the medical care principle of Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976), and Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994). But Herron, who was proceeding without the assistance of counsel, should not be held to a lawyer's standard of articulating (and being bound by) a legal theory. His grievance more naturally sounds like a contention that Meyer decided to hand out on-the-spot punishment to an inmate who filed too many grievances and objected to potential cell mates.

It would violate the Due Process Clause or the Eighth Amendment, if not both, for a guard to clobber an inmate with a truncheon in order to penalize a request to correct prison records. Punishment is limited to that authorized by the judgment of conviction and the ordinary conditions of confinement, plus discipline that must be preceded by procedural safeguards. See Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539 (1974). The facts narrated by Herron suggest that Meyer, knowing that a blow was out of the question, decided to achieve the same effect by moving Herron to a cell where he was likely to suffer an injury. And given the clearly established law that guards may not administer their personal brand of punishment, see Hudson v McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 6–7 (1992); Gilbert v. Cook, 512 F.3d 899 (7th Cir. 2008), it follows that guards are not entitled to qualified immunity when they seize on what seems to them a clever way of achieving the same result.

Meyer insists that he was implementing a policy of moving every inmate who objects to a new cellmate, in order to prevent inmates from reserving oneperson cells. Meyer says that he expected guards near Herron's new cell to assist him when necessary and believed that no harm would come to him. He told the district court that he did not say anything similar to the language Herron imputes to him-and that Herron, far from objecting to the new cell, consented to the placement. If the jury believes this, then Meyer will prevail. But on motion for summary judgment we must take Herron's view of ...

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