Friday, April 20, 2012

Inmate wheelchair claim fails under qualified immunity

An inmate sued state prison officials under the Eighth Amendment, arguing that they were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs because they failed "to provide [him] a new wheelchair[,] thus forcing him to use an unsafe wheelchair while he was in custody of the New York State Department of Correctional Services." The district court denied the state's motion for summary judgment. The Court of Appeals reverses, dismissing the lawsuit.

The case is Hall v. State of New York, a summary order decided on March 27. Jail is where the bad boys go. Qualified immunity is where potentially good cases die. Qualified immunity is the doctrine that says that state defendants get the benefit of the doubt in close cases, such as where the law was not clearly established at the time of the alleged violation. In this case, the inmate, Hall,  had a defective wheelchair. The Court of Appeals says that Nurse Stevens "took appropriate steps to address Hall’s concerns about his wheelchair. Upon receiving a complaint from Hall, Stevens sent the wheelchair to the Physical Therapy Department for evaluation and repair. The Physical Therapy Department then tightened the armrests on the wheelchair and informed Stevens that the wheelchair was safe and functional. When Hall continued to complain about the condition of his wheelchair, Stevens responded that he would look into 'getting [the] wheelchair repaired.'” Similar evidence relates to the other defendant, Weinstock, leading the Second Circuit (Katzmann, Raggi and Rakoff [D.J.]) to conclude that it was objectively reasonable for these defendants to believe that they were not deliberately indifferent to Hall's serious medical needs.

I'm gonna tell you something. I have represented inmates, and this case (as summarized by the Court of Appeals) does not seem that strong to me. So how did this case survive summary judgment at the district court level? Here is how the district court set forth the evidence:

Plaintiff Peter Hall suffers from polymyositis, a chronic muscle disease that causes pain in the limbs and limits his ability to walk for periods of time. Plaintiff entered the custody of the New York State Department of Correctional Services in 2003, and, at that time, his condition was so severe that he was wheelchair-dependent because he was unable to stand or walk. In September 2004, while transferring from his state-issued wheelchair into a shower chair, the right armrest broke, causing Plaintiff to fall in the shower. Plaintiff sustained serious injuries, including a fracture of his ninth and tenth thoracic vertebrae, and a pinched cervical/facial nerve.

. . .

Plaintiff alleges that he spoke with Stevens on at least four occasion after he filed his grievance but before he received a final disposition, expressing dissatisfaction with the repairs and informing Stevens of his remaining fear. Stevens admits that, though he had the authority to order Plaintiff's wheelchair repaired, he exercised it only when responding to Plaintiff's formal grievance. Thus, as the Magistrate Judge found, a reasonable jury could conclude that "[Stevens]' failure to send [Plaintiff]'s wheelchair for further repairs or replacement constituted a deliberate indifference."
Looking at the evidence this way, the case looks a little stronger. We don't always know the full story in reading a summary order by the Second Circuit. But that's the legal process, and that's how summary judgment and qualified immunity works. At best, the Court of Appeals thought this was a close case. You can have a decent case, but government employees are immune from suit unless the case is a strong one. If the case falls within a gray area, you can survive dismissal in the district court, but the case will not make it past the Court of Appeals. 

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