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Vangilder v. Baker

January 13, 2006


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division. No. 03 C 55. Allen Sharp, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Evans, Circuit Judge.


Before FLAUM, Chief Judge, and EVANS and WILLIAMS, Circuit Judges.

One summer night in 2001, Bill VanGilder was among the revelers at the Linwood Tavern, a watering hole in Lafayette (Tippecanoe County), Indiana. After police responded to a reported brawl at the tavern, VanGilder was arrested for public intoxication by officer Brian Baker. VanGilder did not consent to a breath test. Since the Tippecanoe County Jail had a policy of refusing to accept inmates suspected of intoxication until they are seen by a doctor, Baker transported VanGilder to the emergency room of St. Elizabeth's Hospital.

VanGilder was not a model patient. After one doctor cleared him for jail, VanGilder demanded additional examination and treatment, saying he had been injured in the bar fight. While awaiting further attention, VanGilder tumbled off his gurney and taunted Baker, "I'm going to keep you here all night." The officer handcuffed VanGilder to the gurney.

Eventually a second doctor ordered a blood test. VanGilder resisted, positioning his arm so that hospital personnel could not reach his veins. Unable to free the arm, Baker struck VanGilder (we must, of course, at this stage of the case, assume VanGilder's view of the facts) several times about the face. Baker claims that VanGilder kicked him in the side of the head, resulting in a minor concussion for which he later received treatment. (VanGilder denies the kick.) A nurse also said VanGilder was belligerent and that she feared he might try to grab Baker's gun.

According to his police report, Baker responded to the kick by punching VanGilder "repeatedly in the face with a closed fist." VanGilder says Baker punched him between 7 and 10 times, leaving bruises and breaking the orbital bones around his eyes. In the course of the beating, VanGilder says he told Baker, "[S]top . . . okay, okay, take the blood." During this time, VanGilder says his hands were secured to the gurney by handcuffs above his head. Baker characterized his actions as an effort to regain control after VanGilder's resistance.

In his suit against Baker, VanGilder alleges excessive use of force, an infringement of his civil rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The district court granted Baker's summary judgment motion because it believed that VanGilder's claim was barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994).

VanGilder appeals, and, as usual, our review of a grant of summary judgment is de novo. Merrill v. Trump Indiana, Inc., 320 F.3d 729, 731 (7th Cir. 2003). Because the district court erred in its application of Heck, as we will explain, we reverse and remand.

Heck is grounded in the "strong judicial policy against the creation of two conflicting resolutions arising out of the same or identical transaction." Heck, 512 U.S. at 484 (citation omitted). Specifically, Heck holds that before a § 1983 plaintiff may recover damages for alleged harm "caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid," the plaintiff must first prove that his conviction or sentence has been reversed, expunged, or called into question by the grant of a petition for habeas corpus. Id. at 486-87. The rule is intended to prevent "collateral attack on [a] conviction through the vehicle of a civil suit." Id. at 484. Since § 1983 "creates a species of tort liability," id. at 483 (citation omitted), the Heck rule underscores "the hoary principle that civil tort actions are not appropriate vehicles for challenging the validity of outstanding criminal judgments . . .," id. at 486.

To properly apply Heck's bar against certain damage actions, a district court must analyze the relationship between the plaintiff's § 1983 claim and the charge on which he was convicted.*fn1 As the Supreme Court explained, "the district court must consider whether a judgment in favor of the plaintiff would necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction or sentence . . . ." Id. at 487. If so, the complaint must be dismissed until the plaintiff can show the conviction or sentence has been invalidated. Id. How-ever, "if the district court determines that the plaintiff's action, even if successful, will not demonstrate the invalidity of any outstanding criminal judgment against the plaintiff, the action should be allowed to proceed . . . ." Id. (footnote omitted).

In a more recent case, the Court emphasized the need for a clear nexus between the plaintiff's conviction and the alleged wrongful government action before the Heck bar applies. As Justice O'Connor wrote for a unanimous Court,

[W]e were careful in Heck to stress the importance of the term "necessarily." For instance, we acknowledged that an inmate could bring a challenge to the lawfulness of a search pursuant to ยง 1983 in the first instance, even if the search revealed evidence used to convict the inmate at trial, because success on the merits would not "necessarily imply that the plaintiff's conviction was unlawful." 512 U.S., at 487, n. 7 (noting doctrines such as inevitable discovery, independent source, and harmless error). To hold ...

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