Court Opinions: 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion for Jan. 11

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

Johnson v. Reyna, et al.

Jabari Johnson, a Colorado state prisoner, is a prolific pro se litigant. By his own count, he has brought more than 60 civil suits against prison officials under the Eighth and 14th Amendments. Except for complaints that are still pending, all of Johnson’s complaints have been dismissed on grounds that he failed to prosecute or failed to comply with court orders or procedural rules. 

On May 3, 2018, prison staff escorted Johnson to the office of the prison case manager to retrieve copies of Johnson’s prior grievances. The case manager questioned Johnson about his upcoming lawsuits. Johnson declined to talk about the lawsuits but instead asked for his earlier grievances so he could continue the grievance process. 

The case manager became irate and ordered Johnson to leave if he wouldn’t answer his questions. Johnson agreed to leave, and the case manager ordered that Johnson “cuff up.” During this encounter, Johnson insisted he did nothing wrong and posed no threat. 

Moments later, three prison officers arrived to escort Johnson back to his cell: Joaquin Reyna, Brett Corbin and a third officer with the last name Wargo, whose full name and identity are uncertain due to Wargo being referenced with different first names in different court documents. 

Though Johnson was already handcuffed, the officers shackled his legs. In the hallway, Johnson complained the restraints were excessive and violated his constitutional rights. In response, Reyna placed his foot on Johnson’s right foot, which had been injured and untreated prior to this encounter. Johnson pleaded with Reyna to remove his foot and claimed Reyna was “knowingly inflicting pain.” According to Johnson, Reyna refused to move his foot and smiled “sadistically” at him.  

Once Johnson was both handcuffed and shackled, Reyna, Wargo and Corbin escorted him back to his cell, pushing him to walk faster despite the ankle shackles. Johnson gingerly placed one foot on the stairs at a time to avoid further pain when the officers suddenly slammed Johnson “on his untreated fractured jaw.” Johnson told the officers he was in excruciating pain and needed immediate medical treatment. 

Rather than listening to Johnson’s pleas, the three officers dragged Johnson 15 to 20 feet down the hallway. Wargo applied excessive pressure to Johnson’s feet through the ankle shackles, and Johnson once again stated that he was in pain and asked Wargo to stop applying any more pressure. Wargo responded by telling Johnson to shut up and stop “running his mouth.” The officers then placed Johnson in a restraint chair.

Johnson claims Wargo and the other officers slammed him to retaliate against him for filing grievances. One of Johnson’s fellow inmates, Darian Weaver, witnessed the officers’ rough handling of Johnson. Weaver corroborated Johnson’s story to prison officials, confirming that Johnson hadn’t resisted the officers’ escort or initiated the violent incident. 

The incident exacerbated Johnson’s preexisting injuries and caused him to need medical treatment. In February 2019, a prison doctor scheduled physical therapy for Johnson, presumably to heal his injured foot. In June 2019, the chief prison dentist told Johnson he needed to visit an oral surgeon for his misaligned, concaved jaw. Johnson also suffered major depression and anxiety because of the May 2018 incident. 

Johnson sued Reyna, Wargo and Corbin for Eighth and 14th Amendment violations, seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars in punitive and compensatory damages from each defendant. 

Reyna and Corbin moved to dismiss, arguing that Johnson had alleged only de minimis physical injuries, so the Prison Litigation Reform Act physical injury requirement barred his claims for mental or emotional injuries and that Johnson failed to allege an additional physical injury from their actions, so he failed to make a claim. 

Reyna and Corbin also argued the 11th Amendment barred the court from exercising jurisdiction over Johnson’s claims for monetary damages to the extent he sought damages from the state or its employees in their official capacities. Johnson responded, insisting he did suffer further injury. 

A magistrate judge recommended granting Reyna and Corbin’s motion to dismiss and agreed the 11th Amendment barred Johnson’s suit and that the PLRA’s physical injury requirement barred Johnson’s individual-capacity claims. The magistrate judge recommended denying Johnson leave to amend his individual-capacity claims because he was an experienced pro se litigant. 

Johnson objected to the magistrate judge’s report and recommendation. 

Two months after Reyna and Corbin’s motion to dismiss, Wargo also moved to dismiss and echoed Reyna and Corbin’s motion nearly verbatim. Johnson responded by reiterating his earlier contentions. The magistrate judge also recommended granting Wargo’s motion. 

Johnson didn’t object to the magistrate judge’s recommendation to dismiss his claims against Wargo, so the district court accepted the magistrate judge’s recommendations in full and dismissed Johnson’s claims against Wargo. 

The district court also accepted the magistrate judge’s recommendation to dismiss Johnson’s official-capacity claims against Reyna and Corbin without prejudice. The court overruled Johnson’s objections to the magistrate judge’s report and recommendation on his individual-capacity claims and refused to grant Johnson leave to amend and dismissed those claims without prejudice. 

Johnson appealed, challenging the district court’s dismissal with prejudice of his individual-capacity suits. 

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Johnson’s complaint against Wargo because Johnson failed to timely object to the magistrate judge’s report and recommendation on Wargo’s motion to dismiss. 

However, the 10th Circuit reversed the lower court’s dismissal of Johnson’s individual-capacity complaints against Reyna and Corbin and remanded for further proceedings. The 10th Circuit found the district court improperly construed Johnson’s complaint by overlooking his plain-language allegations of pain and injury, and Johnson satisfied the physical injury requirement of PLRA. 

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