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Couchon v. Cousins

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

August 31, 2018




         On October 14, 2013, during a fight with another inmate, Anthony Couchon - then a pretrial detainee at the Essex County Correctional Facility (ECCF) - was bitten by a K-9 dog at the order of its handler, Correctional Officer Leonardo Jorge. After his release from custody, Couchon brought suit in Suffolk Superior Court against Jorge, Sheriff Frank Cousins, and Superintendent Michael Marks (collectively, defendants), seeking damages and alleging unconstitutional conditions of confinement. Defendants removed the case to the federal district court. Before the court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment.


         K-9 units are a fixture of daily life at ECCF, where they are deployed to maintain institutional order. Pl.'s SOF, Dkt #35 ¶¶ 19-21. Before being assigned to ECCF, K-9 handlers and their dogs receive “extensive in-house training” at the Essex County Sheriff's Department (ECSD) and the Boston Police Academy. Defs.' Mem., Dkt #32 at 16. While on duty, the K-9 units are governed by an ECCF use of force policy that provides as follows:

K-9 teams may be used only under the direct control of handlers with prior authorization by the Superintendent or Director of Security. Authorization is not required for regular routine searches or patrol within or outside the facility, during which under normal circumstances there is limited contact with inmates and injuries would not normally result. There may be rare situations where an employee will have to use a K-9 without prior authorization. Any such use of a K-9 will be strictly reviewed to determine that it was not possible to get timely authorization and it was reasonable for the employee to believe that an emergency existed requiring the immediate use of a K-9 to prevent death or serious bodily injury to himself or others.

Pl.'s SOF ¶ 28. Among the “rare situations” in which a K-9 officer can act without prior authorization are fights between prisoners and cases of prisoner “non-compliance.” Id. ¶ 23. Between May 5, 2009, and June 30, 2016, ECCF documented fourteen K-9 bite incidents involving inmates. Id. ¶ 49. ECCF is unique in being the only correctional facility in Massachusetts that deploys K-9s throughout the institution on a regular basis. Id. ¶ 65.

         On October 14, 2013, Couchon got into a brawl with another inmate in ECCF's gymnasium building. The fight quickly attracted a crowd. Id. ¶¶ 5-6; Defs.' Mem. at 5. Lieutenant Heath Carafa was the first officer to respond; he succeeded in tackling Couchon to the ground. Pl.'s SOF ¶ 8. Couchon “landed with his hands and arms underneath his body, ” and allegedly refused to follow “orders to place his hands behind his back.” Id. When Officer Jorge and his K-9 “Gunny” arrived at the scene, Couchon was on the ground. Jorge ordered Couchon to stop resisting and show his hands. Defs.' Mem. at 5. When Couchon refused, Jorge - concerned that Couchon was concealing a weapon - ordered Gunny to bite him. Pl.'s SOF ¶¶ 11, 13. Although the exact number of bites is disputed, there is no question that Gunny bit Couchon more than once. Id. ¶ 15. Couchon sustained injuries to both of his legs and was taken to the infirmary. Id.; Defs.' Mem. at 6. Couchon claims that his wounds took several weeks to heal, and that the physical scarring and emotional trauma from the dog bites still affect him. Pl.'s SOF ¶ 16.

         Pursuant to the ECCF use of force policy, the K-9 Review Board conducted an investigation regarding Gunny's deployment, as Jorge had not received prior authorization to use the K-9. Id. ¶¶ 14, 17. The Review Board unanimously concluded that while “Officer Jorge did his best to help his fellow officers during a stressful situation . . . the K-9 should not have been deployed in this manner in this instance.” Id. ¶ 17; Pl.'s SOF, Ex. 10 (Essex K-9 Review Board Findings).

         Couchon was released from custody on March 23, 2016. Pl.'s Opp'n, Dkt #40 at 2. On October 13, 2016, Couchon filed this Complaint alleging violations of (1) the Federal Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (excessive force and unconstitutional conditions of confinement), (2) the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 12, § 11I (excessive force), (3) Articles I, X, and XII of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, and (4) common-law claims of assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Compl. ¶¶ 56-74.


         Summary judgment is appropriate when “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-248 (1986) (emphases in original). A material fact is one which has the “potential to affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable law.” Nereida-Gonzalez v. Tirado-Delgado, 990 F.2d 701, 703 (1st Cir. 1993). In assessing the genuineness of a material dispute, the facts are to be “viewed in the light most flattering to the party opposing the motion.” Nat'l Amusements, Inc. v. Town of Dedham, 43 F.3d 731, 735 (1st Cir. 1995). On cross-motions for summary judgment, each motion is considered on its own merits with all reasonable inferences being drawn in favor of the respective non-moving party. See OneBeacon Am. Ins. Co. v. Commercial Union Assurance Co. of Can., 684 F.3d 237, 241 (1st Cir. 2012).


         Section 1983 Claims[1]

A. Excessive Force

         Couchon asserts that Officer Jorge used excessive and unreasonable force in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment[2] by ordering Gunny to attack him. Defendants in response contend that Officer Jorge is protected by qualified immunity. “A government official sued under § 1983 is entitled to qualified immunity unless the official violated a statutory or constitutional right that was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct.” Carroll v. Carman, 135 S.Ct. 348, 350 (2014) (per curiam). “This doctrine ‘gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken ...

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