Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Put down your food when you read this blog entry

The Supreme Court has ruled that an inmate who was living in horrendous prison conditions can proceed with his lawsuit, and that the defendants cannot invoke qualified immunity, as the law is clearly established that the Eighth Amendment prohibits these conditions.

The case is Taylor v. Riojas, issued on November 2 without oral argument. The Court hands down rulings without oral argument when it thinks the issue is clear-cut. What makes this decision notable is that the Court almost always finds qualified immunity in civil rights cases against law enforcement. This case is the rare exception.

Qualified immunity allows municipal defendants off the hook from liability when the case law was not clearly-established at the time of the violation. So the constitutional clam may be legitimate, but if the cases did not already squarely point in that direction, then the defendants get the benefit of the doubt and are therefore immune from liability. This only applies in civil rights lawsuits against public officials.

Here, the inmate alleges that, for six days, he was "confined . . . in a pair of shockingly unsanitary cells. The first cell was covered, nearly floor to ceiling, in 'massive amounts of feces': all over the floor, the ceiling, the window, the walls and even 'packed inside the water faucet.'" Fearing contamination, the plaintiff did not eat or drink for nearly four days. Then he was sent to a freezing cold cell, which had a clogged drain in the floor to dispose of bodily wastes. Plaintiff did not urinate for over 24 hours. When he did relieve himself, it caused the drain to overflow and raw sewage to spill across the floor. Since he was confined without clothing and the cell had no bunk, plaintiff "was left to sleep naked in sewage." I hope you are not eating while reading this.

The Fifth Circuit said these conditions violate the Eighth Amendment but that case law in that circuit did not clearly show this was a constitutional violation. The Supreme Court reverses and said that the prison official who were responsible for these conditions can be held liable. Other than Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730 (2002), the Supreme Court does not cite any case law for the proposition that these conditions were illegal, a rare omission in a qualified immunity case. Hope may have been the last time the Court rejected qualified immunity in a civil rights case. The Court does say, "no reasonable correctional officer could have concluded that, under the extreme circumstances of this case, it was constitutionally permissible to house Taylor in such deplorably unsanitary conditions for such an extended period of time."

Justice Thomas dissented without comment. Justice Alito concurred but said the Court shouldn't have taken the case in the first instance because the Court was only correcting the Fifth Circuit's misapplication of the law; the Court normally takes cases that highlight a split among the circuits about legal standards. 

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