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Peoples v. Baker

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 13, 2019

LOUIS PEOPLES, JR., Plaintiff,
BAKER, NEWCOMB, and SIMPSON, Defendants.


          Marcia S. Krieger, Senior United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court pursuant to the Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (# 69), Mr. Peoples' pro se[1]response (# 74, 81[2]), and the Defendants' reply (# 77).


         The Court summarizes the pertinent facts here and elaborates as necessary in its analysis. Mr. Peoples is an inmate in the Colorado Department of Corrections, housed in the Sterling Correctional Facility (“SCF”). According to the Amended Complaint (# 6), on September 28, 2016, Mr. Peoples was summoned to the SCF law library to assist an inmate in preparing some legal materials. Defendants Baker and Newcomb, [3] SCF Correctional Officers, saw Mr. Peoples in the library and told him he was not supposed to be there. A discussion ensued, and Mr. Peoples was briefly handcuffed while the Defendants and other SCF officials conferred to determine whether he was authorized to be in the law library. Eventually, it was decided that Mr. Peoples would not be allowed to access the library for the purposes of assisting other inmates and that he would be returned to his unit. Before he was returned to his unit, he was required to be searched. Mr. Baker directed Mr. Peoples to a staff bathroom and conducted a strip search, albeit with the bathroom door open and in view of an adjacent classroom. Ms. Newcomb and Mr. Simpson were present for that strip search as well. (Mr. Peoples' appears to allege that, at some point, Mr. Simpson took over the search from Mr. Baker.) Mr. Peoples alleges that Mr. Baker conducted the search with the purposeful intention of having Mr. Peoples exposed to as many other inmates as possible and to prolong and embarrass Mr. Peoples.

         Based on these facts, and as narrowed by the Court's Order (# 7) Mr. Peoples asserts a single claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983: violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches, relating to the circumstances of the strip search, asserted against Mr. Baker, as well as against Ms. Newcomb and Simpson, who observed Mr. Baker's unlawful actions and failed to intercede; and (ii) retaliation for the exercise of First Amendment rights, asserted against Mr. Baker and Ms. Newcomb, insofar as Mr. Peoples contends that Mr. Baker's and Ms. Newcomb's actions were taken in retaliation for a prior instance in which Mr. Baker “attempted to get [Mr. Peoples] fired from his job as a programs porter, ” but “Mr. Peoples' boss realized that [Mr.] Baker was wrong in firing him and she refused to let Baker's adverse action stand.” All three Defendants move (# 69) for summary judgment on Mr. Peoples' claims against them, arguing: (i) Mr. Peoples cannot obtain compensatory damages because he did not suffer any physical injury, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1991e(e); (ii) Mr. Peoples does not allege any continuing injury warranting a request for injunctive relief; (iii) Mr. Peoples cannot establish that the strip search constituted a violation of the Fourth Amendment, insofar as such searches are a legitimate exercise of prison security concerns regarding inmates' possession and movement of contraband and that the circumstances under which the search were conducted were reasonable; (iv) Mr. Peoples cannot establish that Ms. Newcomb participated in the search, insofar as he admits that she was standing outside the bathroom with her back turned during the search; and (v) to the extent that any of the Defendants engaged in a constitutional violation, the contours of such violation were not clearly established, entitling the Defendants to qualified immunity. Notably, the Defendants' motion does not address Mr. Peoples' retaliation claim; in their reply brief, the Defendants assert a belief that “the only claims remaining are those asserted pursuant to the Fourth Amendment.”


         A. Standard of review

         Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure facilitates the entry of a judgment only if no trial is necessary. See White v. York Intern. Corp., 45 F.3d 357, 360 (10th Cir. 1995). Summary adjudication is authorized when there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and a party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Substantive law governs what facts are material and what issues must be determined. It also specifies the elements that must be proved for a given claim or defense, sets the standard of proof and identifies the party with the burden of proof. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); Kaiser-Francis Oil Co. v. Producer's Gas Co., 870 F.2d 563, 565 (10th Cir. 1989). A factual dispute is “genuine” and summary judgment is precluded if the evidence presented in support of and opposition to the motion is so contradictory that, if presented at trial, a judgment could enter for either party. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. When considering a summary judgment motion, a court views all evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, thereby favoring the right to a trial. See Garrett v. Hewlett Packard Co., 305 F.3d 1210, 1213 (10th Cir. 2002).

         If the movant has the burden of proof on a claim or defense, the movant must establish every element of its claim or defense by sufficient, competent evidence. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A). Once the moving party has met its burden, to avoid summary judgment the responding party must present sufficient, competent, contradictory evidence to establish a genuine factual dispute. See Bacchus Indus., Inc. v. Arvin Indus., Inc., 939 F.2d 887, 891 (10th Cir. 1991); Perry v. Woodward, 199 F.3d 1126, 1131 (10th Cir. 1999). If there is a genuine dispute as to a material fact, a trial is required. If there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact, no trial is required. The court then applies the law to the undisputed facts and enters judgment.

         If the moving party does not have the burden of proof at trial, it must point to an absence of sufficient evidence to establish the claim or defense that the non-movant is obligated to prove. If the respondent comes forward with sufficient competent evidence to establish a prima facie claim or defense, a trial is required. If the respondent fails to produce sufficient competent evidence to establish its claim or defense, then the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986).

         B. Fourth Amendment claim

         Inmates possess a somewhat abridged Fourth Amendment right to avoid unreasonable searches, but it is well-settled that “a strip search is an invasion of personal rights of the first magnitude.” Farmer v. Perrill, 288 F.3d 1254, 1259 (10th Cir. 2002). Inmates have a “well-established right . . . not to be subjected to a humiliating strip search in full view of several (or perhaps many) others unless the procedure is reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest.” Id. The inquiry into whether a given search is reasonable depends on a variety of factors, including the scope of the intrusion, the manner in which it is conducted, the justification for initiating it, and the place in which it is conducted. Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 559 (1979).

         Most of the facts that led up to the search of Mr. Peoples are not particularly relevant to the discussion herein; it is sufficient to note that Sgt. Larson, an SCF official, concluded that Mr. Peoples was not in a location where he was supposed to be and instructed Mr. Baker to conduct a strip search of Mr. Peoples before returning him to his housing unit. Sgt. Larson's affidavit recites various reasons why inmates who are found out of place, particularly those near areas with books and computers in them, are considered to be security risks. Inmates have been known to fashion contraband from computer parts and store contraband items in books or other locations outside their cells, and inmates who are found outside their assigned locations can be suspected of being “mules” carrying contraband or information on behalf of other inmates.

         Sgt. Larson's affidavit also explains why SCF staff chose to search Mr. Peoples in the staff bathroom, rather than an offender bathroom nearby. The staff bathroom is directly across the hallway from a classroom, and, admittedly, inmates who were present in the classroom could see some portion of the way into the staff bathroom through a chest-high classroom window, particularly if they stood up. On the other hand, Sgt. Larson notes that the offender bathroom has “very good visibility in from the hallway and it would be very difficult to provide the type of privacy that was afforded by the staff bathroom.” Sgt. Larson further ...

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