Thursday, September 22, 2011

It's hard to win a prison medical indifference case

An inmate at an upstate New York prison sued under 42 USC sec. 1983 claiming that he was denied access to medically-prescribed therapeutic diets. If the inmate is right, he has a claim under the Eighth Amendment. If he's wrong, then he has no case. The Second Circuit says he has no case.

The case is Collazo v. Pagano, decided on September 2. Inmates don't have it easy. Certainly in the world of litigation they don't have it easy. The rules are different, and the Supreme Court has set out legal standards that everyone else do not have to follow. For claims like this, the inmate cannot win unless the defendant was deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs. The "serious medical needs" prong is hard enough to meet, but even if the inmate has a serious medical issue, he also has to show that the defendant subjectively intended to deny him appropriate medical attention, the "equivalent of criminal recklessness," the Second Circuit reminds us.

Why does Collazo lose the case? After a prison doctor said that Collazo needed a therapeutic diet low in saturated facts, the jail did provide him the right food. But then a corrections officer accused Collazo of throwing away his food for no good reason. In response, the jail cut off the special diet. That diet was restored after an in-house hearing officer said that Collazo was innocent of the charge. Then, Collazo was diagnosed with diabetes, but he missed a ton of meetings with the prison doctor. His special diet was revoked because of this. As it happened, it wasn't Collazo's fault that he missed the meetings. No one had told him that he was eligible for the special diet.

What we have here is negligence at the jail. But it's not deliberate indifference, the Court of Appeals (Cabranes, Winter and Straub) say. Negligence will get you a good medical malpractice claim. But the courts require deliberate indifference plaintiffs to prove a lot more: subjective or malicious intent. That's not this case. This case involves an "innocent misunderstanding." No Eighth Amendment case for Collazo.

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