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Claiborne v. Blauser, Correctional Officer

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

June 28, 2019

Dennis Gerald Claiborne, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Blauser, Correctional Officer; S. Martin, Correctional Officer, Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued and Submitted February 6, 2019 San Francisco, California

          Appeal from the United States District Court No. 2:10-cv-02427-VAP for the Eastern District of California Virginia A. Phillips, Chief District Judge, Presiding

          Jeremy M. Christiansen (argued), Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, Washington, D.C.; J. Brett Bylund and Blaine H. Evanson, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, Irvine, California; for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Jaime Ganson (argued) and Arthur B. Mark III, Deputy Attorneys General; Neah Huynh, Acting Supervising Deputy Attorney General; Monica N. Anderson, Senior Assistant Attorney General; Xavier Becerra, Attorney General; Office of the Attorney General, Sacramento, California; for Defendants-Appellees.

          Before: Sidney R. Thomas, Chief Judge, Richard A. Paez, Circuit Judge, and Gary Feinerman, [*] District Judge.

         SUMMARY [**]

         Prisoner Civil Rights

         The panel reversed the district court's denial of a motion for a new trial and remanded in an action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by a convicted state inmate who alleged that he was shackled without justification during his three-day trial on his Eighth Amendment excessive force and deliberate indifference to medical needs claims.

         The panel first noted that although the inmate did not object to the shackling during trial, he raised the issue in support of his motion for a new trial. The panel applied plain error review.

         The panel held that because the inmate's dangerousness and flight risk were central issues at the trial, the district court plainly erred in allowing him to be visibly shackled without any showing of a sufficient need for such restraints. The panel held that on remand, the district court would have discretion to impose shackling during the new trial, but it could only do so after a full hearing at which officers showed a compelling need for security and the court considered any less restrictive alternatives.



         The law has long forbidden the routine use of visible shackling during a criminal defendant's trial. Deck v. Missouri, 544 U.S. 622, 626 (2005). Visible shackling undermines the presumption of innocence, impedes the jury's factfinding process, hampers presentation of a defense, and affronts the dignity and decorum of judicial proceedings. Id. at 630-32. In this civil rights case under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, we consider whether the unjustified shackling of a convicted state inmate during his three-day trial on Eighth Amendment excessive force and deliberate indifference claims deprived him of a fair trial in violation of the federal constitution.[1] Although the inmate did not object to the shackling during trial, he raised the issue in support of his motion for a new trial, which the district court denied.

         We hold that the district court abused its discretion in denying a new trial. Because the inmate's dangerousness and flight risk were central issues at the trial, the district court plainly erred in allowing him to be visibly shackled without any showing of a sufficient need for such restraints. See Tyars v. Finner, 709 F.2d 1274, 1284-85 (9th Cir. 1983). We therefore reverse and remand for a new trial.


         This appeal arises out of a lawsuit filed by Dennis Gerald Claiborne who, proceeding pro se, sued Correctional Officers Jemini Blauser, Greg Martin, and other individual officials under Section 1983 for the use of excessive force and deliberate indifference to his medical needs.


         Claiborne is a 63-year-old California state prison inmate in the custody of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation ("CDCR"). He is serving a 60-years-to-life sentence under California's Three Strikes Law for attempted burglary and receipt of stolen property. People v. Claiborne, No. B260391, 2015 WL 5146746, at *1 (Cal.Ct.App. Sept. 2, 2015).

         Claiborne is mobility impaired due to a right knee replacement in 2007 and ensuing chronic problems with that knee. Given his condition, Claiborne participates in the CDCR Disability Placement Program and receives certain accommodations in prison: he is allowed to use a cane; he is restricted to housing on the lower level, with no stairs; and, when escorting Claiborne within the institution, correctional staff must use "waist chains" and choose "relatively level terrain and no obstructions in the path of travel." Waist chains are different from traditional handcuffs; whereas the latter are typically applied behind the back, the former allow a mobility impaired inmate to keep his hands at his sides during an escort, which lets him use any prescribed accommodation devices like a cane. CDCR documents and conveys information about Claiborne's accommodations to prison officials through physician orders known as medical accommodation "chronos" in his file. Claiborne also wears a green vest to alert officers that he is mobility impaired.

         The incident between Claiborne and Officers Blauser and Martin took place on May 3, 2010, while Claiborne was housed at California's High Desert State Prison, a Level Four security prison. As Claiborne was waiting for his medication in the morning "pill line," Correctional Officer Daniel McBride, stationed in an observation tower, believed he saw Claiborne socializing with other inmates in the line. Officer McBride called Officer Blauser, who was working in Claiborne's housing unit along with her partner, Officer Martin, and asked Blauser to counsel Claiborne for unnecessarily lingering in the pill line. After waiting thirty minutes in the pill line, Claiborne received his medication and returned to his housing unit where he was admonished by Officer Blauser. She decided to "put a cap" on Claiborne's door, meaning he would spend the rest of the day locked up in his cell. Because Claiborne had intended to present at a Bible study group later that day, he asked to speak with the sergeant, Officer Blauser's supervisor, to contest the punishment and explain that he had been properly waiting in line and not socializing.

         The account of the facts diverge drastically from there. According to Claiborne, he was acting respectfully toward Officer Blauser when she told him to "cuff up." He complied and, as Officers Blauser and Martin started to escort him, Claiborne informed them that it was difficult for him to walk and use his cane with his hands cuffed behind his back. He mentioned his chrono for waist chains but Officer Blauser told Officer Martin to take Claiborne's cane. Officer Martin said he would help hold Claiborne up as the three of them walked to the program office to speak with the sergeant. Claiborne, however, had difficulty walking with Officers Blauser and Martin. They escorted him straight across the yard, rather than along the sidewalk circling the yard, despite Claiborne's chrono providing for level terrain. Because the yard was uneven, Claiborne hyperextended his right leg, causing his knee to give out partway across the yard. Claiborne lost balance and shifted rightward, causing Officer Blauser to order him to stop resisting. Claiborne tried to explain that he was not resisting and that his knee was bothering him because the officers were pulling him too quickly.

         When the three were almost at the program office, Claiborne's right leg hyperextended again as he tried to pick the leg up three to five inches from the dirt yard onto the pavement. Because he had no cane to catch himself, Claiborne leaned to his right again, causing Officer Blauser to shout "he's resisting" and pull him down to the ground. She jumped on his right side, including his replaced knee, and pulled his hair and hit him in the face a few times. Other officers quickly rushed to the scene and Claiborne heard individuals ask, "Where's his cane?" and "Why isn't he in waist chains?" Claiborne was eventually taken into a holding cell and then interviewed by a sergeant, which was recorded by a video camera. Before turning on the camera to record the interview, the sergeant warned Claiborne that if he reported excessive force, he would be taken to the "hole," in other words, administrative segregation, for an unknown amount of time. Worried about whether his medical needs would be met in the hole, Claiborne eventually stated on camera, after extended back-and-forth with the sergeant, that there was no excessive force used against him.

         Officers Blauser and Martin presented a different account. They were both aware of Claiborne's mobility impairment at the time of the incident. According to Officer Blauser, while she counseled Claiborne for lingering in the pill line, he became "really aggravated" and started raising his voice at her, causing her to feel uncomfortable. Claiborne then walked toward her while holding, not using, his cane. Because she did not feel safe, Officer Blauser told Claiborne to "cuff up," and he immediately turned around and complied. She asked her partner, Officer Martin, to assist her with escorting Claiborne to the program office. Officer Martin took Claiborne's cane, and they each supported him by holding onto his bicep or arm on each side. Neither Officer Blauser nor Officer Martin recalled Claiborne saying anything about needing to use waist chains. Moreover, because it would have taken a few extra minutes to obtain waist chains, Officer Blauser decided to use handcuffs due to Claiborne's aggression and defiance of her order to return to his cell.

         According to Officers Blauser and Martin, they escorted Claiborne straight across the yard because it was the quickest and most direct path to the program office and avoided walking amongst other inmates. They escorted him slowly and did not perceive any problems with his walking. Rather, they believed that Claiborne tried to break away from them twice, once halfway across the yard, and a second time close to the program office. At first, Officer Blauser ordered Claiborne not to pull his arm away but he continued to act aggressively, yelling and trying to pull away from her. When Claiborne pulled his arm away from her a second time, Officer Blauser decided to pull him down and called a "code one" over the radio. Officers Blauser and Martin used their weight to hold Claiborne down on the ground. They denied that Officer Blauser jumped on Claiborne, pulled his hair or punched him in the face. After other officers escorted Claiborne away, Sergeant Officer Kenneth Gullion followed protocol and conducted a video-recorded "use-of-force" interview, asking Claiborne about what took place. Sergeant Gullion did not remember what happened prior to interviewing Claiborne on video. A separate officer wrote Claiborne up for a rule violation, resisting a peace officer.

         Shortly after the incident, a nurse examined Claiborne and completed a medical report, noting that he had two abrasions, one each on his left knee and left cheek. Afterward, Claiborne experienced more problems with his right knee, and doctors determined that he had significant injuries, including bursitis. Following a series of evaluations, Claiborne was assessed to have "[f]ailed right total knee arthroplasty." He underwent a revision procedure in 2012, but was told that his knee did not respond properly to the surgery and could not be fixed any more. Claiborne also had surgery on one of his shoulders in July 2015, when he was told that he waited too long to fix it.


         After exhausting the prison's administrative process, Claiborne filed suit in district court. Proceeding pro se, he sued Officers Blauser, Martin and other individual officers under Section 1983 for various claims, including the use of excessive force and deliberate indifference to his medical needs in violation of his Eighth Amendment rights. The other named defendant officers and other claims, including battery, negligent infliction of emotional distress and intentional infliction of emotional distress, were eventually dismissed from the case. After the district court denied cross-motions for summary judgment, the case proceeded to trial on the two Eighth Amendment claims against Officers Blauser and Martin.

         The trial lasted three days, at the start of which the district court noted, outside of the jury's presence, that Claiborne was shackled. Claiborne testified on his own behalf, and two fellow inmates also testified on his behalf. The defense presented testimony from six officers including Officers Blauser and Martin, the tower guard officer ...

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