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Second Circuit Finds Personal Involvement, Reverses Dismissal of Bivens Claim

The Second Circuit of Appeals has reversed a lower court’s dismissal of a prisoner’s Bivens claim, alleging denial of glaucoma medication which caused his permanent blindness.

In September 2001, DEA agents arrested Rodney Thomas in California on drug charges. “Thomas … told the … agents that he suffered from glaucoma, which, if untreated, would lead to blindness, and he therefore kept with him at all times eye drop prescriptions that he was required to self-administer daily.” However, the “agents confiscated and discarded his medications and he was not provided with replacements for several weeks.”

In October 2001, Tomas was transported from California to New York. During the two-week trip, “his eye medication was rarely provided and improperly administered.” During his initial New York court appearance, Thomas’ attorney noted the denial of his glaucoma medication and the court ordered that the medication be provided.

Two weeks later Thomas was treated by an eye doctor, who directed daily administration of glaucoma medication. Yet in January 2002, Thomas was still not receiving his medication, causing the doctor to note that Thomas was at “high risk for blindness.” His vision was severely compromised at that point but his medication was administered only erratically.

By May 2002, Thomas was still not receiving his glaucoma medication. His “request for medical attention was denied even after he experienced ‘a popping sensation in his eye,’ followed by constant watering and pain of increasing severity.” “Despite numerous complaints from his attorney and his family, a court order, and warnings from medical specialists, Thomas continued to be denied access to his glaucoma medication. While incarcerated, Thomas became permanently blind.”

In July 2002, Thomas brought suit in federal court against the California DEA agents and various New York officials. He alleged numerous state and federal claims, asserting that his blindness was caused by the defendants’ deliberate indifference. The district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, concluding that the court lacked personal jurisdiction over the DEA agents, and that Thomas had failed to allege the defendants’ personal involvement in denial of his medical care.

The Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the claims against the DEA agents, finding that Thomas failed “to make a prima facie case of personal jurisdiction over the agents.” It reversed the dismissal of the Bivens claim for inadequate medical care. The appellate court found that the “district court’s conclusions do not comport with” its “reading of the complaint.” Citing McKenna v. Wright, 386 F3d 432, 436-37 (2nd Cir. 2004), the appeals court held that Thomas “alleged sufficient personal involvement to sustain a Bivens action.” Moreover, “where, as here, prison officials were personally instructed by a federal judicial officer to see to an inmate’s urgent medical needs, by that fact alone they are personally involved.”

See: Thomas v. Ashcroft, 470 F.3d 491 (2nd Cir. 2006).

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Related legal case

Thomas v. Ashcroft