Week of March 5, 2018 through March 9, 2018
Eric DePaola v. Harold Clarke (Keenan 3/9/2018): The Fourth Circuit held that a prisoner’s right to sue under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 was not time-barred under the continuing violation doctrine and that the prisoner had sufficiently alleged deliberate indifference to his mental health needs but had failed to properly allege deliberate indifference to his physical health needs. The court reasoned the prison officials had been on notice of the prisoner’s mental health needs since his first suicide attempt in 2010. The court reversed the district court’s dismissal of the prisoner’s claims with regard to the mental health claims, affirmed with regard to the physical health needs, and remanded for further proceedings. Full Opinion
Slay’s Restoration, LLC v. Wright National Flood Ins. (Niemeyer 3/9/2018): The Fourth Circuit held that a subcontractor hired by a property owner’s contractor to repair flood damage to the owner’s property was not injured in its business or property by reason of a pattern of racketeering allegedly carried out by the property owner’s insurance company and its independent consultants to reduce the amount paid on the property owner’s insurance claims for reimbursement of the repair costs. The court reasoned the plaintiff’s harm was not proximately caused by the insurance company and therefore failed to present a claim upon which relief could be granted. The court therefore affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint. Full Opinion
United States v. Adrian Hyman (Agee 3/9/2018) (amended): The Fourth Circuit, on rehearing, held it properly declined to hear the appellant’s appeal when the appeal was filed late. The court reasoned that the fact the Government filed a late motion to dismiss did not cure the appellant’s deficiency because the local rules allow for a timeliness issue at any time. Therefore, the court dismissed the appeal. Full Opinion
United States v. Larry Recio (Motz 3/7/2018): The Fourth Circuit held that a Facebook post quoting rap lyrics was admissible in the trial of a felon charged with possession of a firearm and further held the district court’s denial of a motion for mistrial was proper. The court reasoned the statement was relevant, was not impermissible character evidence, and was admissible hearsay. Likewise, the court reasoned it was within the judge’s discretion to order the jury to continue deliberating after being deadlocked after only half a day of deliberations. The court thus affirmed the district court’s judgment. Full Opinion
BAE Systems Technology v. Republic of Korea’s Defense (Motz 3/6/2018): The Fourth Circuit held summary judgment was proper as to the Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration’s breach of contract claims against BAE Systems, a United States defense contractor, disputing a U.S. government-led cost increase on an F-16 fighter plane upgrade agreement. The court, in so ruling, relied heavily on an amicus brief from the United States when considering issues of international comity. The court also held, however, that their decision did not preclude South Korea from bringing the case in South Korea’s courts. The court therefore affirmed the order of the district court. Full Opinion
Roxanne Adams v. Debra Ferguson (Motz 3/6/2018): The Fourth Circuit held the Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Services was entitled to qualified immunity when an incarcerated criminal defendant alleged that the Commissioner failed to place him in a mental hospital pursuant to a state court order when there were open beds in mental hospitals. The court held that holding the criminal defendant in a prison instead of transferring him to a mental hospital did not present an objectively excessive risk to his health and safety and was not a violation of a clearly established right. Consequently, the court affirmed in part, reversed the district court’s denial of the Commissioner’s motion to dismiss pursuant to qualified immunity, and remanded. Full Opinion
Roxanne Adams v. Debra Ferguson, No. 17-1484
Decided: March 6, 2018
The Fourth Circuit held the Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Services was entitled to qualified immunity when an incarcerated criminal defendant alleged that the Commissioner failed to place him in a mental hospital pursuant to a state court order when there were open beds in mental hospitals. The court held that holding the criminal defendant in a prison instead of transferring him to a mental hospital did not present an objectively excessive risk to his health and safety and was not a violation of a clearly established right. Consequently, the court affirmed in part, reversed the district court’s denial of the Commissioner’s motion to dismiss pursuant to qualified immunity, and remanded.
In 2015, Jamycheal Mitchell (“Mitchell”) was arrested for theft in Virginia. After a competency evaluation, Mitchell was found to be a candidate for the state’s jail diversion program, but he refused to accept those services. While in prison, a psychologist evaluated Mitchell and determined he lacked the capacity to participate in his defense and asked that he be committed to the Department of Behavioral Health. The state courts acted in accord by issuing a competency restoration order and directing that Mitchell be treated at Eastern State Hospital. The clerk of court, however, waited two months to fax the order to the hospital. Once the fax was sent, it was placed in a desk drawer and never acted upon. Mitchell was never entered onto the list of persons awaiting a bed at the hospital. Instead, as the complaint alleged, Mitchell remained in prison where he did not receive necessary medical care and guards denied him food and water, allowed him to live in a cell covered by feces and urine, and physically abused him. In August of 2015, Mitchell died from wasting syndrome or severe malnutrition. After Mitchell’s death, it was reported Eastern State Hospital almost never operated at capacity and that across the state there were more open beds than inmates waiting for beds.
Roxanne Adams (“Adams”), personal representative of Mitchell’s estate, sued Debra Ferguson (“Ferguson”), who “served during these events as the Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Services, the agency responsible for overseeing state mental health hospitals,” and forty-nine other defendants. Adams sued Ferguson under Virginia law for “negligence, gross negligence, and willful and wanton negligence” for failing to fulfill her “statutory duty . . . to transfer Mitchell and other incompetent individuals to appropriate hospitals and to provide them restorative inpatient health care.” She also sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for constitutional violations. Ferguson moved to have all claims against her dismissed by “claiming sovereign immunity, qualified immunity, and that the complaint did not state a claim under § 1983 or state law.” The district court denied Ferguson’s motion to dismiss in its entirety and Ferguson timely appealed that ruling, despite the lack of a final order, pursuant to the collateral order doctrine.
A plaintiff must prove two elements to overcome a defendant’s assertion of qualified immunity: (1) the defendant violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights, and (2) the right in question was clearly established at the time of the violation. The court chose to analyze the second element first. The plaintiff/appellant (Adams) asserted that, at the time of the violation, it was clearly established that Ferguson knew the system had a pervasive problem of leaving persons in prisons despite the presence of empty beds in the hospitals, and that she also knew there was a substantial risk of serious harm if she did not intervene. The court, while noting that prisons frequently offer inadequate health and mental care, stated that simply not ordering the transfer of a patient to a mental hospital does not create a substantial risk of harm. In so holding, the court cited a Tenth Circuit opinion drafted by then-Judge Gorsuch, which held that placing a criminal defendant in a detention center and denying him a transfer to a mental hospital is not a per se violation of the Constitution.
The court did note that if the facts claimed in the complaint were true then Mitchell’s constitutional rights were certainly violated, but that those violations were committed by some or all of the forty-nine other persons named in the complaint and their transgressions could not be imputed to Ferguson to deny her qualified immunity.
Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed in part, reversed the district court’s denial of Ferguson’s motion to dismiss pursuant to qualified immunity, and remanded.
James David George, Jr.