Court Reverses Termination Of Corrections Officer Who Punched Inmate In Stomach

Steven Harris is a correctional officer at Maury Correctional Institution, a North Carolina state prison. Harris was working the night shift on February 5, 2015, and was assigned to the “Gray Unit,” which housed the prison’s segregation cell block. Inmate Christopher Walls placed his feces into a plastic bag and placed the bag into the toilet, which caused water to leak onto the floor. Walls then poured the feces onto the floor.

In response to Walls’ actions, Sergeant Vernell Grantham ordered three officers to remove Walls from his cell to allow a janitor to clean up the feces and extinguish the stench. The officers restrained Walls with handcuffs behind his back, a waist chain, and leg cuffs. Harris approached Walls, stated to him: “You think this is funny,” and punched Walls in the stomach. Walls was physically restrained, compliant, and under the other officers’ control at the time Harris punched him. The other officers each testified that Walls did not attempt to spit on Harris and was not offering any resistance at the time Harris punched him.

The State terminated Harris for his actions. An administrative law judge reduced the termination to a one-week suspension, and the State appealed to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

The Court upheld the reduction in Harris’ discipline. The Court’s decision was framed against a North Carolina state statute requiring the State to show “just cause” for the discipline of an employee. The Court observed that “an ALJ, reviewing an agency’s decision to discipline a career State employee, owes no deference to the agency’s conclusion of law that either just cause existed or the proper consequences of the agency’s action. After receiving and considering the evidence, and entering findings of fact, an ALJ is free to substitute their judgment for that of the agency regarding the legal conclusion of whether just cause existed for the agency’s action. Based upon the evidence presented and the findings of fact supporting the legal conclusion of just cause, the ALJ may order any remedy.

“We agree with the ALJ’s finding of fact that punching Walls, while he was in restraints and under the control of other officers, does not fit into any of the categories identified for use of force and that force was used by Harris as some form of retribution” for Walls’ actions. We also agree that Harris’s conduct constituted ‘unacceptable personal conduct’ and warranted discipline for his actions.”

The Court then found a series of mitigating circumstances that justified the reduction of the termination to a one-week suspension, including:

• Harris had a good work history. His shift sergeant described him as a hard worker and an asset to his unit.

• Harris had a good working relationship with Walls, an inmate who has more than 100 adjudicated disciplinary infractions. Harris testified without contradiction that he was the staff member on his regular shift who could calm Walls down because Walls thought Harris was a fellow Muslim.

• The medical evidence – or lack thereof – also militated in Harris’s behalf. Harris is a very large man and Walls is a small man. The medical screening conducted within half an hour of the alleged assault found no evidence whatsoever of Walls having been punched by anyone.

• Video taken moments after the supposed unprovoked assault shows Walls walking erect, smiling, and in no apparent distress. The only rational conclusion based on the totality of the circumstances is that Harris struck Walls with very little force.

The Court concluded that “as the sole fact-finder, the ALJ has both the duty and prerogative to determine the credibility of the witnesses, the weight and sufficiency of their testimony, to draw inferences from the facts, and to sift and appraise conflicting and circumstantial evidence. We afford a high degree of deference to the ALJ’s findings, when they are supported by substantial evidence in the record. After reviewing the whole record, we find substantial evidence supporting the ALJ’s findings, and they are binding on appeal.”

Harris v. North Carolina Department of Public Safety, 798 S.E.2d 127 (N.C. App. 2017).