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Watts v. Laurent

September 18, 1985


Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 82 C 4593- Bernard M. Decker, Judge.

Author: Cudahy

Before CUDAHY and EASTERBROOK, Circuit Judges, and SWYGERT, Senior Circuit Judge.

CUDAHY, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiff, Jeffrey Watts, suffered a severe injury to his left leg and hip while he was an inmate at the Illinois Youth Center located in St. Charles, Illinois. He brought this suit, under 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983, against several state employees who worked at the Youth Center, alleging they violated his constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. After trial, a jury returned verdicts against five defendants, but the trial court granted one of the defendants, Barry Steele, judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The remaining defendants appeal the verdicts against them, and plaintiff appeals the court's decision in favor of defendant Steele. Plaintiff also attacks the trial court's decision to grant defendants' post-trial motion to clarify the amount of the judgment.


The Youth Center at St. Charles is designated a medium/maximum security facility, and houses several hundred young criminal offenders. Plaintiff Jeffrey Watts arrived there on July 21, 1981, at which time he had just turned fifteen and weighed about 125 pounds. When residents arrive at the Youth Center, administrators assign them to a cottage according to their disposition and background. Watts was assigned to Pierce Cottage. Employees designated as "youth supervisors" oversee the residents. Four of the five defendants involved in this appeal*fn1 -Althea Brown, Geri Cejka, James Laurent and Steven VanJoske-were youth supervisors at the Center while Watts was there. Their duties included taking regular head counts, conducting residents to and from means and classes, keeping daily records on each resident's behavior and administering discipline. the fifth defendant, Barry Steele, acted as a "team leader," and was also responsible for supervising the Teen Center, a recreational facility for the residents.

On January 22, 1982, the residents of Pierce Cottage met outside the cafeteria after lunch. Defendants Brown and VanJoske were taking a head count before leading the residents back to the cottage, when several residents began running over the field in the direction of Pierce. There was conflicting testimony about whether the students had been given permission to run. One of those running was plaintiff Watts; another was Derrick Greaves. The testimony was in conflict about what happened next. Watts testified he was running when he suddenly found himself on the ground with Greaves on top of him; he claimed Greaves had attacked him. Defendants, on the other hand, argued that Watts had slipped on some ice. Watts suffered permanent damage to his hip joint, severely impairing his ability to walk and run.

Plaintiff's theory at trial was that Greaves had threatened Watts at least four times prior to the attack, and that defendants were aware of these threats but took no action to protect him. Greaves had arrived at the Youth Center on November 25, 1981, after being transferred from a minimum security prison at Valley View, Illinois because of this behavior there. During the relevant period, Greaves was about 5'7" tall and weighed approximately 155 pounds. Watts testified at trial that many of the inmates at the Youth Center were members of gangs, and that several gangs had attempted to recruit him although he never joined one. Other testimony indicated that Greaves considered himself the "chief" of one gang, the Black Gangster Disciples. Various evidence supported the inference that the threats and attack could have been gang-related, in that Watts' independence prior to the attack undermined Greaves' authority as a gang chief. Plaintiff's evidence indicated that each of the four defendants who were youth counselors overheard incidents in which Greaves threatened Watts. Although there was no direct evidence that defendant Steele ever overheard such a threat, Watts' theory at trial was that Steele became aware of the danger to Watts through his knowledge of Greaves' record, his opportunity to observe Greaves' behavior and his recognition that Watts was much smaller than Greaves and other residents. All of the defendants testified that they were not aware of any extraordinary animosity between Watts and Greaves. Additional facts are noted in the remainder of this opinion where pertinent.


Defendants Laurent, Cejka, Brown and VanJoske each argue that the trial court erred in refusing to grant their motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict because no reasonable jury could have found that they violated plaintiff's eighth amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. More particularly, these defendants deny that they had any knowledge of the danger plaintiff claims was posed by Derrick Greaves.

A motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict is properly denied where the evidence and all reasonable inferences, when viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion, is such that reasonable people in a fair and impartial exercise of their judgment may reach different conclusions. Estate of Davis v. Johnson, 745 F.2d 1066, 1070 (7th Cir. 1984). This standard implies that a judgment notwithstanding the verdict should rarely be granted where the apparent correctness of the verdict turns on credibility determinations.

With these general principles in mind, we turn to the standards governing whether these defendants may be held liable for depriving plaintiff of rights secured under the eighth amendment. In Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 50 L. Ed. 2d 251, 97 S. Ct. 285 (1976), the Supreme Court held that deliberate indifference to prisoners' serious medical needs constitutes the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain that is the hallmark of cruel and unusual punishment. Id. at 104. Since that case, this court has repeatedly recognized that the failure of institutional personnel to protect a prisoner from the assaults of other prisoners can also rise to the level of an eighth amendment violation. See e.g., Estate of Davis v. Johnson, 745 F.2d at 1071; Little v. Walker, 552 F.2d 193, 197 (7th Cir. 1977), cert. denied, 435 U.S. 932, 55 L. Ed. 2d 530, 98 S. Ct. 1507 (1978). Nevertheless, conduct that simply amounts to "mere negligence or inadvertence" is insufficient to justify the imposition of liability. Estate of Davis v. Johnson 745 F.2d 1066 at 1070. Rather, "[i]n order to infer callous indifference when an official fails to protect a prisoner from the risk of attack, there must be a 'strong likelihood' rather than a 'mere possibility' that violence will occur." Id. at 1071 (quoting State Bank of St. Charles v. Camic, 712 F.2d 1140, 1146, 1146 (7th Cir. 1983)), cert. denied, 464 U.S. 995, 104 S. Ct. 491, 78 L. Ed. 2d 686 (1984). "[A] guard does not have to believe to a moral certainty that one inmate intends to attack another at a given place at a time certain before that officer is obligated to take steps to prevent such an assault." State Bank of St. Charles v. Camic, 712 F.2d at 1146 (quoting VunCannon v. Breed, 391 F. Supp. 1371 (N.D. Cal. 1975)). The failure to protect a prisoner on even a single occasion can give rise to liability where it can be inferred that an institutional employee should have realized that there was a "strong likelihood" of an attack.*fn2 See Redmond v. Baxley, 475 F. Supp. 1111, 1117 (E.D. Mich. 1979).

Each of the defendants argues that the evidence was insufficient to demonstrate that he or she was aware of a "strong likelihood" that Greaves would attack Watts; indeed, each claimed at trial to have no knowledge of any particular friction between the two boys, much less of the specific threats testified to by Watts. These defendants also stress, as they did before the trial court, the uncontested fact that Watts never told any of the defendants he was afraid of Greaves as a result of the threats, and argue that defendants therefore had no opportunity to take steps to protect him. Because the trial court reviewed the evidence relevant to these claims in some detail, we quote from its conclusions with respect to each defendant:

Althea Brown: Watts testified that Brown was on duty one morning when the residents of Pierce Cottage lined up for breakfast. Watts ended up first in line. Graves told Watts that Greaveswent first because Greaves told Watts that Greaves went first because Greaves was in charge of the cottage. Graves allegedly said, "'you're lucky [you're] a shorty and one day you're going to get yours.'" Tr. (February 13, 1984) at 14-15.

Brown asserts that she never overheard this threat, in part because she was supervising twenty-eight residents. nevertheless, the jury could have disregarded her testimony and inferred from Watts' testimony that she overheard the threat. Coupled with knowledge that gang loyalties led to violence in the facility, Brown could have known enough to show the necessary deliberate indifference. At trial, she testified that she was aware of no gang activity that went unpunished at St. Charles. She appeared knowledgeable in general, however, about gangs and their activities. Given the other reasonable testimony evidenceing extensive gang activity at St. Charles and Brown's knowledge of gang behavior, her denials of gang activity may have rung hollow and undermined her credibility.

Geri Cejka: Watts testified that Cejka witnessed a fight between Watts and Greaves over a card game. Although Watts was hesitant and uncertain on cross-examination, he stuck to his story that Cejka was on duty and in the same room as Watts and Greaves during the argument. Cejka herself agreed that she disciplined both boys on another occasion for a similar argument. When Cejka testified, Watts' counsel impeached her by reading from a letter in which she referred to Greaves as a "heavy." She wrote the letter shortly after the January 22nd incident, but the jury could have inferred that she based her opinion in the letter on activity that took place before the incident. Tr. (February 14, 1984) at 50. She explained that, by "heavy," she meant that Greaves was "bossy" and "wanted his way all the time." Id. at 49-51, 59-60. This statement by itself indicated that she considered Greaves to be overly aggressive. The jury could also have decided that "heavy" implied ...

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