Wake Forest Law Review

By John Van Swearingen

On March 24, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the prisoner civil rights case Porter v. Clarke. Plaintiffs, originally four Virginia death row inmates, filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia alleging that the conditions of their confinement amounted to cruel and unusual punishment violative of the Eighth Amendment. One inmate was executed during the course of this action, leaving three inmates as Plaintiffs. Defendants, the Director of the Virginia Department of Correction and the Warden of the Sussex I State Prison, thereafter changed the policies at issue in the complaint. The district court subsequently dismissed Plaintiff’s action for mootness. Plaintiffs timely appealed, claiming their action is not moot.

Facts and Procedural History

In November 2014, when Plaintiffs filed this lawsuit, the Virginia Department of Corrections was operating under a pair of 2010 policies that governed the living conditions of death row inmates. Plaintiffs spent twenty-three hours a day in seventy-one-square-foot cells, alone, with a steel bed, a desk, and a combination commode-and-sink. Death row inmates could not have “contact” visits with anyone; all visitation was separated by plexiglass. The warden had unlimited discretion in granting contact visits with immediate family under “extreme circumstances.”

Inmates were allotted one hour of “outdoor recreation” five days a week. This consisted of an empty outdoor cell similar in size to the inmates’ living cells. Inmates had zero access to any group behavioral, educational, vocational, or religious services.

In August 2015, Defendants established new interim guidelines permitting death row inmates one-and-a-half-hour weekly contact visits with immediate family, one-and-a-half-hour weekend and holiday contact visits with other approved visitors, one-and-a-half-hour outdoor recreation sessions five days a week, daily one-hour indoor recreation sessions with up to three other inmates, and a daily fifteen-minute shower. Defendants built a new outdoor recreation area for group activities and an indoor recreation dayroom for group behavioral, educational, vocational, and religious services.

In December 2015, Plaintiffs and Defendants filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Defendants never explicitly moved for dismissal on the grounds of mootness. At the motion hearing, Defendants also noted that they would not take any action binding them to the new guidelines, stating instead that the fluid nature of corrections require that they be able to increase security back to “lockdown status” if need be.

In May 2016, the district court requested an update from Defendant’s on the status of the interim guidelines. Defendants filed an affidavit stating they had updated to new policies providing one-and-a-half-hour outdoor recreation five days a week, one-hour indoor recreation with up to four inmates daily, fifteen minute daily showers, weekly one-and-a-half-hour contact visitation sessions with immediate family and one approved other visitor, non-contact weekend and holiday visitation, and extended visitation sessions granted on a case-by-case basis. Per Defendants’ affidavit, the new policies will be reviewed annually and updated in no later than three years.

In July 2016, the district court granted summary judgment for Defendants’ despite the Defendants’ refusal to neither admit that the pre-2015 inmate conditions violated the Eighth Amendment nor offer any guarantee that the pre-2015 policies would not be restored. The lower court dismissed the Plaintiff’s cross-motion as moot, and Plaintiffs timely appealed.

Mootness Requires More Than a Voluntary Cessation of the Challenged Behavior

Under Article III § 2 of the United States Constitution, federal courts are deprived of subject matter jurisdiction when litigation ceases to involve a “case or controversy.” In other words, as noted by the United States Supreme Court in Powell v. McCormack, “a case is moot when the issues presented are no longer ‘live’ or the parties lack a legally cognizable interest in the outcome.” 395 U.S. 486, 496 (1969).

However, in City of Mesquite v. Aladdin’s Castle, Inc., the Supreme Court also noted that “a defendant’s voluntary cessation of a challenged practice does not deprive a federal court of its power to determine the legality of the practice.” 455 U.S. 283, 289 (1982). As noted by the First Circuit in ACLU of Mass. v. U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a savvy litigant could otherwise render itself immune to litigation by voluntary ceasing a challenged behavior upon the filing of a complaint, then resume that behavior following dismissal for mootness. 705 F.3d 44, 54–55 (1st Cir. 2013).

Instead, a Defendant seeking dismissal for mootness must, pursuant to the Supreme Court’s holding in Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services (TOC), Inc., meet the heavy burden of showing that “it is absolutely clear the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur.” 528 U.S. 167, 190 (2000). This burden is not met if, as in the Fourth Circuit’s decision in Pashby v. Delia, a defendant retains the authority to reinstate a challenged policy. 709 F.3d 307, 316–17 (4th Cir. 2013).

Nothing here bars Defendants from returning to the original policies addressed in Plaintiff’s complaint. Indeed, they have stated that the policies may be reinstated in some form if a situation demanded “lockdown” of the inmates. Further, Defendants expressly refused to commit to the revised policies or admit that the original policies violated Plaintiff’s Eighth Amendment rights. The Fourth Circuit expressly declined to support or denounce the original policies, noting that there may be valid “penological rationale” for reverting to the original policies as described if a situation rendered those policies appropriate. However, the Fourth Circuit noted that this very possibility rendered the dismissal of Plaintiff’s complaint for mootness improper.

Disposition

The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s judgment and remanded for further proceedings. Since Defendants expressly retained the discretion to reinstate the policies challenged by Plaintiffs, the voluntary dismissal of those policies did not render the action moot.

By John Van Swearingen

On Wednesday, November 9, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case LeBlanc v. Mathena. This matter was a habeas corpus petition brought by a juvenile offender sentenced to life without parole for a non-homicide offense. The District Court of the Eastern District of Virginia had previously concluded that Virginia’s Geriatric Release program, which provides offenders sentenced to life without parole the opportunity to petition for conditional release after the age of sixty, violated the minimum standards of the incorporated Eighth Amendment as held in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010). In Graham, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Eighth Amendment forbids the sentencing of juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses to life without parole. Juvenile life sentences for non-homicide offenses must provide a meaningful and realistic opportunity to obtain release based on “demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Here, the circuit court affirmed the district court’s ruling, holding that Geriatric Release does not meet the requirements of Graham.

Facts and Procedural History

On January 1, 1995, Virginia enacted Va. Code Ann. § 53.1-165.1 (2015), abolishing parole for felonies convicted after that date. On July 6, 1999, the Petitioner committed the crimes of rape and abduction, and on July 15, 2002, he was convicted and sentenced to two life sentences.

After the Supreme Court decided Graham in 2010, the Petitioner filed a motion in Virginia state court to vacate his sentence of life without parole. In 2011, the state trial court denied Petitioner’s motion based on Angel v. Commonwealth, a contemporaneous Virginia Supreme Court decision holding that Virginia’s Geriatric Release program satisfied the requirements of Graham.

In June of 2012, the Petitioner filed a writ of habeas corpus in the District Court of the Eastern District of Virginia. The district court granted the habeas petition, holding that the Geriatric Release program did not meet the standards established in Graham. The Respondents in this case, the state, timely filed this appeal.

Virginia’s Geriatric Release Program

Virginia’s Geriatric Release program is a two-stage process by which convicted offenders with life sentences can apply for conditional release. Unlike Virginia’s abolished parole doctrine, the Geriatric Release program is not automatic. Offenders must initiate the process with a petition to the Parole Board – and again, they may only do so after their sixtieth birthday.

The first stage of the Geriatric Release process requires the offender’s petition demonstrate a “compelling” reason for the release of the offender. The term “compelling” is not defined in the relevant statute or administrative regulations. The Parole Board is able to deny the petition for Geriatric Release for any reason at this point.

Should the Parole Board permit the petition to go to the second stage, the offender will be provided the opportunity to make oral and written statements to the Parole Board to advocate for his or her release. If at least four out of five members of the Board agree, the offender’s petition for Geriatric Release will be granted.

Again, the process is distinguishable from the old parole system. Geriatric Release cannot be initiated until the offender turns sixty. Virginia’s parole process typically initiated after offenders had served about fifteen years. The Petitioner would likely have been eligible for parole, under the old system, after around twenty years. Under the Geriatric Release program, that length of time is approximately doubled. Further, only three out of five members of the Parole Board had to agree to grant parole. The Geriatric Release program requires one more member of the board for approval.

Standard of Review for Habeas Corpus Petitions

When a habeas petition is filed, the standard of review turns on whether the petition involves a question of law or fact. This case presents a question of law, meaning the standard of review is stated at 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2) (2012). If the court’s decision was an “unreasonable determination” of how the law applies to the facts in this case, then the court’s decision was improper. If the decision was reasonable, it stands.

Habeas petitions in federal district courts must review the case at hand in addition to the most recent state case addressing the issue. In this case, the most recent state case was the Angel decision, which held that the Geriatric Release program met the requirements of Graham. Since the state decision is contrary to the district court’s decision, either Angel or the district court’s decision will be determined unreasonable, and one holding will be affirmed.

The Standard Established in Graham

The holding in Graham was based on the Supreme Court’s conclusion that juveniles are less culpable for crimes than adults. Juvenile brains, the Court noted, are still developing. Because of this, the Court stated, juvenile offenders are less likely to be “irretrievably depraved” than adults. With that in mind, the Court examined the prospect of life without parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses in the context of the Eighth Amendment.

The Court noted that life without parole is only second to the death penalty in its harshness and ability to deprive convicted persons of hope. Life without parole is, therefore, an ultimate judgment of the irrevocable nature of an offender’s character. Given those points, the Court held that life sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses must meet three requirements.

First, the sentence must provide an opportunity to obtain release based on “demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Second, this opportunity must be meaningful and realistic. Third, the state’s parole and release programs at large must account for the lesser culpability of juveniles.

The Geriatric Release Program Does Not Satisfy the Graham Requirements

The Fourth Circuit held that the Virginia Geriatric Release program does not meet any of the three requirements set out in the Graham decision, thus overturning Angel and affirming the district court’s holding.

First, the Geriatric Release program does not require the Parole Board to consider any factors relevant to the juvenile’s maturity or rehabilitation. Additionally, because of the two-stage review process, a petition can be denied at the first stage – before the presentation of oral and written arguments. Also, over 95% of the denials of Geriatric Release petitions were based on the nature of the underlying crimes, which, again, precludes consideration of maturity and rehabilitation. Therefore, the program does not meet the first requirement of Graham.

Second, the circuit court held the extended duration of time compared to parole, coupled with the lack of consideration for juvenile-specific factors, rendered the opportunity provided under the Geriatric Release program neither meaningful nor realistic for juvenile offenders facing life sentences. Therefore, the program does not meet the second requirement of Graham.

Finally, the Geriatric Release program fundamentally contravenes the concerns underlying the Court’s third requirement in Graham. Unlike the abolished parole program, which counted time served regardless of age, the Geriatric Release program requires juveniles serving life sentences to spend a longer percentage of their life incarcerated than an adult serving the same sentence. Essentially, the program ensures that juveniles, though deemed to be less culpable by the Supreme Court, will bear a harsher punishment than adults.

Disposition

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order remanding the Petitioner’s case for resentencing. The Virginia Geriatric Release program permits the denial of offender’s petitions without requiring consideration of demonstrated maturity or rehabilitation. The program, in execution, results in more comparably harsh sentences for juvenile offenders than adult offenders. Therefore, the Geriatric Release program does not meet the requirements of the incorporated Eighth Amendment as enumerated in Graham.

By Kelsey Mellan

On November 4, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in Scinto v. Stansberry, a civil case involving a prisoner who was allegedly denied medical attention while in a North Carolina prison (“Prison”). Plaintiff Paul Scinto, Sr. suffers from diabetes and claims that while he was incarcerated, he was denied medical care that resulted in permanent injury. Plaintiff alleged this denial of medical care violated his Eighth Amendment right, which prohibits the infliction of “cruel and unusual punishment.” The current issue before the Fourth Circuit is whether the district court erred in dismissing Plaintiff’s constitutional claims against Dr. Derick Phillip, Administrator Susan McClintock, and Warden Patricia Stansberry for denying him medical care while under their supervision at the Prison. In response, Dr. Phillip and Administrator McClintock claimed that because of qualified immunity, they were shielded from civil liability. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision regarding Warden Stansberry and vacated its decision in terms of Dr. Phillip and Administrator McClintock as the court determined their actions violated Plaintiff’s Eighth Amendment rights. Furthermore, the Fourth Circuit rejected the Defendants’ invocations of qualified immunity.

Facts & Procedural History

Plaintiff entered custody at the Prison in June 2005 after serving multiple years at different federal prisons. While incarcerated, Plaintiff suffered from numerous medical conditions, including high blood pressure, hepatitis C, and insulin-dependent diabetes. There were multiple incidents that occurred at the Prison giving rise to these claims. When Plaintiff first arrived at the Prison in June 2005, Dr. Phillip, his primary prison doctor, prescribed him daily insulin injections to control his diabetes. On June 14, 2005, Plaintiff alleged that he requested an insulin injection from Dr. Phillip because his blood sugar was abnormally high. Plaintiff then claimed Dr. Phillip denied him an insulin injection, opting to create a diet plan for Plaintiff instead. According to evidence presented by Plaintiff, Dr. Phillip never followed through on this meal plan Dr. Phillip claimed the only reason he did not give insulin to Plaintiff on June 14 was because of his “angry” attitude and threatening behavior. Dr. Phillip routinely failed to provide insulin to Plaintiff. Plaintiff alleged that inadequate treatment of his diabetes resulted in damage to his nervous system, kidneys, and eyesight.

An additional incident took place on August 24, 2005 when Plaintiff suffered from a medical emergency causing him to experience extreme stomach pain, vomit blood, and become incontinent. Plaintiff claims that despite his multiple attempts to render assistance from Dr. Phillip and Administrator McClintock, he was not provided proper medical attention until two days later, at which time he was diagnosed with gallstones. Both Dr. Phillip and Administrator McClintock interacted with Plaintiff during this medical emergency and took no action to provide medical care for him.

Finally, Plaintiff alleged he was denied a proper diabetic diet during his stay at the Prison. He claimed that every meal served at the Prison was high in sugar and was accompanied by a sugary drink. When he expressed these concerns to both Warden Stansberry and his congressman who forward the concerns to the Warden, Plaintiff stated he was told that inmates were educated about how to select foods appropriate for their medical conditions. Because of the lack of diabetes-friendly food, Plaintiff claimed he suffered from high blood sugar levels, the treatment of which caused him to experience loss of diabetic control and severe destructive episodes of diabetic hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia.

Plaintiff originally brought multiple constitutional claims against numerous Prison officials in the District Court for the District of Columbia. The D.C. District Court dismissed most of these claims against officials and transferred the remaining claims to the District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Cross-motions for summary judgment followed and the district court denied Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment and granted summary judgment to the defendants on each of Plaintiff’s claims. This appeal only concerns three claims dismissed on summary judgment, each arising under the Eighth Amendment against Dr. Phillip, Administrator McClintock, and Warden Stansberry. Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), summary judgment is appropriate, “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”

Eighth Amendment and Denial of Medical Care

The Eighth Amendment prohibits the infliction of “cruel and unusual punishment.” In Helling v. McKinney, the Supreme Court determined that this amendment pertains to not only physically cruel punishment, but that it also includes “the treatment a prisoner receives in prison and the conditions under which he is confined.” The Supreme Court further defined this right in Farmer v. Brennan, in which the court established that prison officials are required to provide humane conditions of confinement and that inmates receive adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care.

To succeed on this constitutional claim pertaining to denial of medical treatment, a plaintiff must demonstrate a prison official’s “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain proscribed by the Eighth Amendment.” In Farmer, the Supreme Court crafted a 2-pronged test that plaintiffs must fulfill to prove an Eighth Amendment violation. First, plaintiffs must demonstrate that the alleged deprivation was, objectively, “sufficiently serious.” In order to be considered sufficiently serious, the medical need being deprived should be either diagnosed by a physician or so obvious that even a layperson would realize medical attention is necessary. Second, plaintiffs must show that, subjectively, prison officials acted with a “sufficiently culpable state of mind,” in that the official knew of and disregarded an excessive risk to the inmate’s health. This prong requires proof of the official’s actual knowledge of both the inmate’s serious medical condition and excessive risk posed by the official’s action or inaction.

Plaintiff’s Eighth Amendment Claims against Defendants

Plaintiff claims that Dr. Phillip violated his Eighth Amendment right when he refused to give Plaintiff insulin to combat his high blood sugar. The Fourth Circuit determined that Plaintiff demonstrated a genuine dispute of material fact as to both Farmer’s objective and subjective prongs. First, Plaintiff sufficiently proved he suffered from a serious medical condition, insulin-dependent diabetes. The issue of fact concerns whether the serious medical condition of diabetes actually led to the more serious kidney and eyesight problems. Moreover, Dr. Phillip actually treated Plaintiff for his diabetes and it is obvious to even a layperson that insulin-dependent diabetics require insulin injections. In terms of the second subjective prong, Plaintiff adequately demonstrated that not only did Dr. Phillip know about his medical condition, but that the doctor was fully aware of the potential ramifications of mistreatment of the disease. The Fourth Circuit decided that the combination of these facts was enough for Plaintiff’s claim against Dr. Phillip to survive summary judgment.

In terms of Plaintiff’s August 24 medical emergency, he again established genuine issues of material fact as to both Farmer prongs. In terms of the objective prong, Plaintiff’s evidence establishes that there is genuine dispute as to whether as to whether the denial of medical attention during this emergency resulted in serious injury or a substantial risk of serious injury. Subjectively, Plaintiff proved that it was likely both Dr. Phillip and Administrator McClintock were aware of his need for medical assistance. Their failure to take action could give rise to an inference of deliberate indifference, and therefore should survive summary judgment and be presented to a jury.

Despite the aforementioned actions by prison officials, the Fourth Circuit decided the district court correctly determined that Warden Stansberry did not violate Plaintiff’s Eighth Amendment rights. Objectively, Plaintiff failed to raise a genuine dispute of material fact regarding whether, in this case, the lack of a diabetic diet was a sufficiently serious deprivation to be actionable under the Eighth Amendment. Subjectively, the Warden provided adequate evidence to prove that on at least two occasions, inmates were educated on how to choose foods appropriate for their medical conditions. Moreover, several sister circuits have decided that as long as a prison provides some foods that are appropriate for different medical conditions, they have fulfilled their constitutional duties under the Eighth Amendment. Likewise, courts have found that inmates who are denied special diets suffer no constitutional harm so long as they are instead given instruction on how to eat the available meals in a way that satisfies their medical needs. Therefore, the district court was correct in awarding Warden Stansberry summary judgment.

Also, the Fourth Circuit determined that Defendants in this case were not protected by qualified immunity, which shields government officials performing discretionary functions from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. This is because there is sufficient evidence that Plaintiff’s Eighth Amendment right to adequate medical care and freedom from officials’ deliberate indifference to his medical needs was violated. This right was clearly established, so Dr. Phillip and Administrator McClintock are not entitled to qualified immunity.

Disposition

Therefore, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Warden Stansberry and reversed the grant of summary judgment to both Dr. Phillip and Administrator McClintock.

By Whitney Pakalka

On May 19, 2015, The Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case of Ussery v. Mansfield, 786 F.3d 332. Sammy Ussery filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that officers at the North Carolina penal institution where he was incarcerated caused him serious injuries by their use of excessive force. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of the officers’ motion for summary judgment.

  Ussery Claimed Correctional Officers Used Excessive Force

Sammy Ussery was an inmate at a correctional facility where he was forcibly extracted from his cell by correctional officers on July 9, 2008. Sergeant David Mansfield ordered Ussery to exit his cell so that it could be searched, but Ussery refused because officers repeatedly searched his cell in previous days without discovering any contraband. Sgt. Mansfield then gathered an extraction team of officers, including Officers James Dunlow and Timothy Ruffin, named defendants.

Although prison policy mandates that extractions be videotaped, Sgt. Mansfield stood in front of the video camera during most of the extraction, obstructing the view of Userry’s cell. What can be seen on the video, however, comports with some of Ussery’s account that the officers “beat him repeatedly in the head and face with batons, punches and kicks” and that Sgt. Mansfield “kicked and stomped” on him. Ussery was eventually handcuffed and carried out of his cell, and he was later taken to the hospital for emergency treatment of his injuries.

Several months later, the State Bureau of Investigation conducted an inquiry at the request of the state Department of Corrections to determine whether excessive force was used. However, because the video of Userry’s cell was obstructed by Sgt. Mansfield, the SBI was not able to reach a definitive conclusion.

The District Court Denied One of Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment

Ussery filed an action pro se under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that the officers violated the Eighth Amendment by use of excessive force and for failure-to-protect. Ussery contended that as a result of the force used, he suffered hearing loss, neck pain, loss of vision in one eye, and other injuries that caused him ongoing “physical and emotional pain and suffering, and disability.”

The officers denied punching or kicking Ussery, and argued that he only incurred de minimis injuries. The officers submitted an affidavit of a doctor employed by the Division of Prisons who said that Ussery only had minor injuries with no lasting effects. The doctor based his medical opinion on prison records without examining Ussery. The officers requested summary judgment based on an entitlement to qualified immunity. The district court granted the motion as to the failure-to-protect claim, but denied the motion as to the excessive force claim.

Qualified Immunity from Civil Damages for Excessive Use of Force

In cases where excessive force is claimed, the Fourth Circuit previously applied the standard from Norman v. Taylor, 25 F.3d 1259 (4th Cir. 1994) (en banc). The court in Norman held that a plaintiff cannot prevail on an Eighth Amendment excessive force claim if his injury is de minimis, unles he can show that the use of force was “repugnant to the conscience of mankind.” However, Norman was abrogated by the Supreme Court in Wilkins v. Gaddy, 559 U.S. 34, 38–39 (2010), holding that “[a]n inmate who is gratuitously beaten by guards does not lose his ability to pursue an excessive force claim merely because he has the good fortune to escape without serious injury.”

The Fourth Circuit still applies the standard set out in Norman for cases where the alleged use of excessive force occurred before Wilkins was decided. Thus, because the extraction occurred in 2008, Ussery will have to establish (1) that he sustained more than de minimis injuries, or (2) that the use of force was “of a sort repugnant to the conscience of mankind and thus expressly outside the de minimis force exception.” Norman, 25 F.3d at 1263, n.4.

Jurisdiction for an Appeal from Denial of a Claim of Qualified Immunity

When a district court denies a claim of qualified immunity, it is an appealable final decision under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, “to the extent that it turns on an issue of law.” Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 530 (1985). The Supreme Court further explained that where a district court denies summary judgment to a defendant seeking qualified immunity entirely on the basis of evidentiary sufficiency, no basis for an interlocutory appeal exists. Johnson v. Jones, 515 U.S. 394 (1995).

The district court, in its denial of summary judgment, found that a question of fact existed not only in regard to the extent of Ussery’s injuries, but also as to whether the circumstances were sufficient to show force “repugnant to the conscience of mankind,” thus satisfying the standard in Norman. Because the denial of summary judgment was based on the sufficiency of the evidence, the Fourth Circuit found that it was not permitted to review the lower court’s assessment of the factual evidence.

However, the Fourth Circuit inferred that the district court concluded that Ussery could establish a violation of law under Norman. Finding that this was a “purely legal conclusion,” the Court went on to consider whether the district court properly denied Defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

The officers argued that Ussery only suffered de minimis injuries and could not satisfy the Norman standard. The Fourth Circuit disagreed noting that whether a plaintiff’s injuries satisfy the standard depends on the facts of the case. The Court noted that the injuries Ussery claims may have long-term effects and were arguably more severe than injuries previously held to be sufficient for an excessive force claim. Additionally, the Department of Corrections conducted its own investigation, suggesting that the force used could have resulted in sufficiently serious injuries to meet the standard of Norman.

The Fourth Circuit Affirmed the District Court’s Judgment

Interpreting the facts in the light most favorable to Ussery, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Defendants’ motion for summary judgment requested on the basis of qualified immunity.

By: David Darr

Today, in Bradford v. Clem, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court for the District of Maryland’s decision to order summary judgment in favor of the defendants on the plaintiff’s Eighth Amendment claims.

Eighth Amendment Violation?

At issue in this case was whether an Eighth Amendment claim for “unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain” can proceed when a prison doctor does not renew the plaintiff’s pain medication prescriptions for two weeks due to changes in the prison medical staff.

Defendant Not Renewing Prescriptions

The plaintiff, Steven Karl Edward Bradford, suffered from severe damage to his left intraorbital nerve and, as a result, developed severe chronic pain on the left side of his face, migraines, and double vision. This greatly impaired Bradford’s abilities to do normal activities.  In 2010, after some unsuccessful attempts to treat these symptoms, Bradford was put on regimen of Tramadol, Depakote, and Lyrica. This regimen proved to be relatively successful and Bradford was able to engage in regular activities for two years on this regimen. Bradford had to be reevaluated every ninety days for prescription renewals. In 2012, the prison that Bradford was incarcerated in a prison that switched health care providers and, as a result, the doctor who regularly treated Bradford no longer worked at the prison. Bradford was treated by a physician’s assistant the next time he went in for an evaluation. One of the defendants, Physician’s Assistant Oltman, only renewed Bradford’s Lyrica prescription because the other two drugs were narcotics and not in Oltman’s power to renew. As a result, Bradford ran out of Depakote and Tramadol. Over a two week period without the drugs, Bradford wrote the other defendant, Dr. Jason Clem, to renew his other two prescriptions because he was in intense pain. Bradford claimed these letters were ignored. After filing a grievance with the warden, Bradford’s prescriptions were renewed. He was without them for about two weeks.

Bradford brought an action a violation of his Eighth Amendment protection against “unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain” in the District of Maryland. The defendants filed for summary judgment and the District of Maryland granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants in this opinion. Bradford then appealed the decision.

Need Subjective Recklessness for an Eighth Amendment Violation

The District Court, whose reasoning the Fourth Circuit adopted, ruled that there must be some intent or subjective recklessness to inflict pain for an Eighth Amendment violation and that Bradford’s claim showed no such recklessness.

No Eighth Amendment Violation Found by the District Court

The Fourth Circuit used the District Court’s reasoning in affirming this case. An Eight Amendment claim for “unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain” for denial of medical care requires an action or inaction by the defendants that amounts to deliberate indifference to a serious medical need. Objectively, the medical condition must be “serious” and, subjectively, there must be recklessness. Subjective recklessness requires knowledge of the risk and that the conduct is inappropriate in relation to the risk.  The District Court found ample evidence that Bradford’s condition was objectively “serious.” Thus, if Bradford provided evidence of subjective recklessness his claim would prevail. However, the District Court found no evidence of an intent to cause harm to Bradford or that Bradford was intentionally deprived his medicine. The speed of the response to Bradford’s letters was demonstrative of this lack of intent. The District Court also found that the fact that this incident occurred as the prison was changing health care providers showed a potential alternative reason for this error. Because of this lack of evidence of intent, there was no subjective recklessness and therefore not enough to establish an Eighth Amendment claim. While the District Court found that the Bradford’s pain could have easily been avoided, it ultimately grated the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

Fourth Circuit Finds No Reversible Error

In affirming the case, the Fourth Circuit found that the District Court made no reversible error in its decision.