A civil liability law publication for officers, jails, detention centers and prisons
ISSN 0739-0998 – Cite this issue as: 2018 JB October
- Digest Topics
- Access to Courts/Legal Info
- Inmate Property
- Medical Care
- Medical Care: Mental Health
- Prison Litigation Reform Act: Exhaustion of Remedies
- Prisoner Assault: By Inmates
- Prisoner Death/Injury
- Segregation: Administration
- Sexual Assault
MONTHLY CASE DIGEST
Some of the case digests do not have a link to the full opinion.
- Most Federal District Court opinions can be accessed via PACER. Registration required. Opinions are usually free; other documents are 10¢ per page.
- Access to cases linked to www.findlaw.com may require registration, which is free.
Access to Courts/Legal Info
After filing a civil rights suit against prison officers, the plaintiff asked the court six times to recruit a volunteer lawyer to represent him. A federal appeals court held that the trial court was within its discretion in denying his first five requests, but abused its discretion in denying the sixth. In a civil case, a litigant has neither a constitutional or a statutory right to counsel, but when a court gets a request to recruit a lawyer for an indigent plaintiff, it must decide whether the plaintiff has made a reasonable attempt to obtain a lawyer on his own and whether, given the difficulty of the case, the plaintiff is competent to litigate it himself. This case involved the second question. The plaintiff was facing a jury trial by video conference, which “substantially increased” the difficulty of the case, despite the simplicity of the claims. The basic competence that the plaintiff had demonstrated during the pretrial phase did not necessarily reflect his ability to handle a video trial entirely on his own. Trying a case requires additional skills, and he had only managed the pretrial phase with the help of a jailhouse lawyer who had since been transferred to another prison. Walker v. Price, #17-1345, 2018 U.S. App. Lexis 23106 (7th Cir.).
New arrivals at a county jail were required to surrender their possessions. A class action on behalf of detainees asserted that the county sheriff did not do enough to prevent guards and other employees from losing or stealing those possessions. Evidence in the case, however, showed that the loss-or-theft rate had been falling after the sheriff implemented additional controls. A federal appeals court, based on this evidence, upheld a jury’s rejection of the claims. The class did not allege that the sheriff personally stole anything or even tolerated a known thief, and no guard was a defendant. The jury concluded that the sheriff had taken “reasonable measures.” The court upheld a jury instruction that the sheriff could be found liable for violating the Fourteenth Amendment if there was a widespread custom or practice which allowed the plaintiffs’ property to be lost or stolen, that was the moving force behind plaintiffs’ losses, and the defendant was deliberately indifferent to those losses. Another instruction said: “The Office of the Sheriff … need not have formally approved the conduct so long as Plaintiffs prove that a policy-making official knew of the pattern and allowed it to continue.” Elizarri v. Sheriff of Cook County, #17-1522. 2018 U.S. App. Lexis 24014 (7th Cir.).
A correspondent sent at least ten books, plus magazines and newspapers to a man serving a 300-day sentence in a county jail. More than 30 books were seized from the prisoner’s cell. Both the correspondent and the prisoner sued, claiming that limiting prisoners to three pieces of reading material violated the First Amendment. After the trial court rejected this claim, a federal appeals court upheld this result as to the correspondent, finding that she lacked standing as the prisoner received everything that she sent. But it vacated as to the claims of the prisoner, noting that he challenged the policy, rather than the particular seizure, and that the policy provides for no pre-deprivation process. Lyons v. Dart, #17-3170, 2018 U.S. App. Lexis 23861 (7th Cir.).
A private company provided medical care to Illinois inmates at certain facilities. One inmate experienced chronic ankle pain and consulted with doctors at his prison, requesting surgery. The doctors instead ordered more conservative treatment. When his pain persisted, the doctors considered referring him for surgical evaluation, which required the private company’s approval. It rejected requests for surgical evaluation but authorized the inmate to see a podiatrist, and an orthopedist three years later.
The inmate sued the company, claiming deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs. A jury awarded him $10,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. The trial judge ruled that the punitive-damages award violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive or arbitrary punishment and reduced the award to $50,000. A federal appeals court vacated. While the U.S. Supreme Court has warned that “few awards exceeding a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages … will satisfy due process,” the trial court had nine single digits from which to choose and decided that the Seventh Amendment did not require it to offer the plaintiff the choice of a new trial before it entered judgment on the reduced award. The decision was arbitrary and a procedural misstep. The appeals court remanded to give the plaintiff a choice between a reduced punitive-damages award and a new trial limited to damages. Beard v. Wexford Health Sources, Inc., #16-1763, 2018 U.S. App. Lexis 23316 (7th Cir.).
Medical Care: Mental Health
A Wisconsin prisoner claimed that he had sought medical treatment for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, neck and throat pain, and difficulty breathing and swallowing for years. He argued that the prison doctors were deliberately indifferent in their treatment of these illnesses in violation of his Eighth Amendment rights. The trial court found that no reasonable jury could find that the doctors were deliberately indifferent.
The federal appeals court upheld summary judgment in favor of the defendants. The prisoner failed to prove that he actually suffers from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. And none of the medical testing done provided any evidence that he suffered from a cognitive disorder. A doctor did investigate his mental health condition, and referred him to a psychiatrist and a specialty center for extensive observation. There was plentiful evidence of the doctor’s attempts to diagnose the source of the prisoner’s pain, including work with endocrinologists, an otolaryngologist, a speech pathologist, a pulmonologist, a neurosurgeon, and a dentist. This did not amount to deliberate indifference. Wilson v. Adams, #16-1889, 2018 U.S. App. Lexis 23824 (7th Cir.).
Prison Litigation Reform Act: Exhaustion of Remedies
A prisoner complained about inadequate medical treatment. His initial treatment was only for a rash. He received four further treatments, but increasingly experienced problems with daily living activities, and was finally rushed to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with a rare muscle disease and returned to the facility with medication. His condition worsened until he could no longer eat, sleep, sit up, lie down, or move.
He tried to prepare a complaint form about his allegedly inadequate treatment but was unable to do so. He was transported in a wheelchair to a dayroom for assistance, as he was unable to write. All of the recreational tables there, however, were occupied, and he was returned to his cell where no visitors were allowed after being denied permission to use a study table. Hospitalized for two months, he then returned to the facility, but did not file a grievance. He decided to sue and then learned that he first had to file a grievance. When he did so, it was rejected as untimely. An institutional examiner testified that his condition would have been “good cause” to extend the filing period for the grievance, but not for as long as it took him. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. 1997e(a), his lawsuit was rejected for failure to exhaust administrative remedies within 14 days, as required by Wisconsin law. A federal appeals court vacated. Whether a grievance procedure is unavailable does not depend whether the defendants engaged in affirmative misconduct, but whether the plaintiff was not able to timely file the grievance through no fault of his own. Concluding that nothing prevented him from filing the grievance immediately after he returned to the facility improperly held him responsible for failing to follow a procedure of which he was not aware and which was not in the facility handbook. Lanaghan v. Koch, #17-1399, 2018 U.S. App. Lexis 24565 (7th Cir.).
Prisoner Assault: By Inmates
In a former inmate’s lawsuit claiming that correctional officials failed to protect him from threats, assault, and sexual/physical harassment by other prisoners, the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity when there was sufficient evidence to support the trial court’s finding that there were material factual disputes concerning their conduct. Berry v. Doss, #17-2565, 2018 U.S. App. Lexis 23058 (8th Cir.).
A 52-year-old Indian national who was a non-citizen was arrested for failing to appear for jury duty, despite being actually ineligible for jury duty. She was also charged with resisting arrest because she pulled away from the officer. At the county jail, she was placed on suicide watch, transferred to ICE custody, and released within days. She was rearrested after failing to appear on the resisting arrest charge and was returned to the county jail. Her physical and mental health deteriorated and she refused to eat or drink. Medical personnel allegedly did little except for monitoring her until she died.
Her estate sued the county, jail officials, and the jail’s contracted medical provider and its employees. Nothing in the record would justify any finding of personal liability against the county defendants who had been assured that medical staff were regularly monitoring the detainee. The medical providers had reported that she was stable and promised to send her to a hospital if it became necessary. The plaintiff also failed to show that any aspect of the jail’s policies caused the death. Judgment for the medical providers, however, was premature. There was ample evidence in the record from which a jury could decide that the doctors’ inaction diminished the detainee’s chances of survival. Miranda v. County of Lake, #17-1603, 2018 U.S. App. Lexis 22229 (7th Cir.).
A Kansas prisoner sued a number of state correctional officials as well as prison officials, claiming various constitutional violations arising from his lengthy placement in solitary confinement. The defendants were entitled to qualified immunity because, at the time of the solitary confinement, there was no clearly established law that would have put them on notice that it violated his rights.Grissom v. Roberts, #17-3185, 2018 U.S. App. Lexis 24544 (10th Cir.).
****Editor’s Case Alert****
In a prisoner’s lawsuit arising out of a prisoner’s claim that a former corrections officer sexually assaulted her, the trial court properly granted summary judgment to the defendant county. The plaintiff failed to establish that the county itself caused the alleged constitutional violation. Nothing showed that a failure to train the officer caused the alleged assault or that the county was deliberately indifferent to the plaintiff’s rights in any way. Alleged negligence by two supervisors was insufficient for civil rights liability. A reasonable officer in the sheriff’s position would not have known that he needed to more closely supervise the officer, and he was entitled to qualified immunity. The other supervisor also would not have known, based on the record in the case, that the former corrections officer posed an “obvious risk” of committing sexual assault. Marsh v. Phelps County, #17-1260, 2018 U.S. App. Lexis 22600 (8th Cir.).
Federal Prison Policies: Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) Aerosol Spray, Federal Bureau of Prisons Program Statement 5576.06 (August 5, 2018).
Statistics: Report: 2018 Update on Prisoner Recidivism: A 9-Year Follow-up Period (2005-2014), Bureau of Justice Statistics (May 2018).
- Abbreviations of Law Reports, laws and agencies used in our publications.
- AELE’s list of recently-noted jail and prisoner law resources.
Latest posts by John Blackmon (see all)
- FOP Meeting Tonight - November 12, 2018
- Washington Watch: Legislative Update - November 11, 2018
- Public Safety Employee Right to “Name-Clearing” Hearings - November 9, 2018