FOURTH CIRCUIT DECIDES APPEAL IN INMATE DEATH CASE
(Posted March 6, 2018) A panel of the Fourth Circuit today hands down a unanimous opinion in Adams v. Ferguson, an appeal stemming from the 2015 death of Jamycheal Mitchell, an inmate at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail.
Mitchell was arrested for theft in April 2015. Jail officials soon ascertained that, like many other detainees and inmates, he needed mental-health services. A psychiatrist found that he was “both manic and psychotic” and recommended that he be transferred to a hospital for treatment. But that transfer never happened; instead, Mitchell was subjected to treatment in the jail that most readers will regard as shocking. He eventually died from malnutrition while in custody, four months after his arrest.
The paragraph above reflects the facts as alleged in the complaint that Mitchell’s personal representative filed in 2016. There has as yet been no evidence taken in the case, because one of the defendants, the former commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health, moved to dismiss the claims against her, on immunity grounds. A magistrate judge recommended that the motion be granted, but a district judge disagreed and denied the motion.
The commissioner appealed. Normally, you can’t appeal the denial of a motion to dismiss, but the refusal of a plea of qualified immunity is an exception to that, under the collateral-order doctrine. Even so, the circuit court today refuses to review some of the other defenses, such as state-law immunity under the public-duty doctrine.
There are two reasons for that refusal: First, the commissioner didn’t raise the public-duty doctrine in the district court, so that issue is waived. Second, the Fourth can’t use pendent appellate jurisdiction – where the courts can adjudicate state-law claims that are “attached” to federal-law claims – because the state-law claims aren’t “inextricably intertwined” with the federal claims. Some of the personal rep’s claims against the commissioner are thus sent back to the district court for further proceedings.
But the court can reach the qualified-immunity defense. The panel concludes that the allegations against the commissioner weren’t clearly established at the time, so she’s entitled to dismissal of those claims.
If you’re familiar with the case, you may be surprised to learn that the way in which the system treated the decedent isn’t forbidden by clearly established law. After all, the pleadings paint a horrifying picture of abuse, followed by death through what amounts to starvation.
But the claims against the commissioner are different: She is alleged to have ignored the pleas to have Mitchell transferred to a mental hospital, despite the availability of more beds than were needed for inmate patients at the time. And that claim is insufficient under existing law. Jails and prisons are expected to provide mental-health services, and while a hospital might give the patient a brighter prospect of recovery,
No clearly established law dictates that housing mentally ill inmates in prisons, rather than transferring them to state mental health facilities, “automatically and alone amount[s] to an ‘objectively excessive risk’ to [inmate] health and safety.”
The court thus affirms in part, reverses in part, and remands the case to the district court in Norfolk for further proceedings.
I’ll mention one other aspect of this. The commissioner had claimed immunity based on her status as a government official. She asserted that she was sued in her official capacity, and caselaw clearly holds that that’s the functional equivalent of suing the government itself. But the personal rep’s pleading asserts that she was sued in her personal capacity.
The appellate court doesn’t have to take that as gospel; it can find that such an allegation is merely a coat of varnish on official-capacity allegations. But not here. The allegations relate to the commissioner personally, and unlike true official-capacity suits, her successor wasn’t substituted as a party to the case when she stepped away from the job. This last point is a helpful tip to those who plead, and who respond to pleadings, in this kind of action.