Monday, July 6, 2015

Inmate suicide loses on qualified immunity grounds

The Supreme Court uses an inmate suicide case to remind us how hard it is to hold individual government defendants liable in constitutional cases whey they can assert qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that shields them from litigation when the state of the law is not clearly-established at the time of the violation.

The case is Taylor v. Barkes, decided on June 1. After the inmate killed himself, his family sued jail officials, claiming they failed to supervise and monitor the private contractor that provided the medical treatment—including the intake screening—at the Institution. The case does not get out of the box because of qualified immunity.

This case was not argued at the Supreme Court, which issues a per curium ruling after reading the briefs. Regular blog readers know that qualified immunity does not create automatic protection for government defendants. But for plaintiff to win the case, he has to show the defendants violated clearly-established constitutional rights. The Court says the defendants are immune because court rulings are not clear about this issue, which means the defendants were not aware they were violating the inmate's rights. The Court says:

No decision of this Court establishes a right to the proper implementation of adequate suicide prevention protocols. No decision of this Court even discusses suicide screening or prevention protocols. And “to the extent that a ‘robust consensus of cases of persuasive authority’” in the Courts of Appeals “could itself clearly establish the federal right respondent alleges,” the weight of that authority at the time of Barkes’s death suggested that such a right did not exist.
See how narrow the clearly-established right has to be? Even if the court thinks the plaintiff's rights were violated in hindsight, if the law was not clear at the time, then the plaintiff cannot recover damages.

Pay attention to how the Court frames the issue. It says no decision of the Supreme Court speaks to this issue.The Second Circuit considers whether the decisions of that Circuit clearly-established the right. Most other Circuits use the same framework. But the Supreme Court has never told us what body of law to draw from in determining whether a right is clearly-established. It is possible that if the Supreme Court ever takes up that issue -- and it will, someday -- it will say that the only way to know if an area of law is clearly-established is by looking to Supreme Court rulings, and not cases from the Courts of Appeal.

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