By Prison Legal News

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a district court’s application of a “de minimis harm” standard in dismissing a Wisconsin detainee’s claim that he was sexually groped.

In April 2008, James Washington, Jr. was a pretrial detainee at a Wisconsin jail when a guard, John P. Hively, allegedly fondled his “testicles and penis through [his] clothing” during a pat down, “then while strip searching him fondled his nude testicles for two or three seconds.” Washington filed a federal lawsuit against Hively, who denied the allegations.

The district court granted Hively’s motion for summary judgment. The court correctly recognized that it could not resolve the factual disputes on summary judgment. However, even presuming “that the defendant grabbed the plaintiff’s genitals in a way that was not related to penological interests,” the district court found Hively was entitled to summary judgment because Washington “presented evidence of only de minimis injury” and had “suffered at most an assault and battery.”

Washington appealed and the Seventh Circuit reversed, finding that “the judge’s references to ‘de minimis injury’ and ‘assault and battery’ inappropriately invoked excessive force cases,” which hold “that ‘de minimis uses of force are non-actionable.’”

The Court of Appeals found that “an unwanted touching of a person’s private parts, intended to humiliate the victim or gratify the assailant’s sexual desires, can violate a prisoner’s constitutional rights whether or not the ‘force’ exerted by the assailant is significant.”

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