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Ninth Circuit: No Qualified Immunity for Refusing to Feed Prisoner

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that a prison guard was not entitled to qualified immunity for depriving a prisoner of 16 meals over a 23-day period.

In 2001, Ronald P. Foster was confined at California’s High Desert State Prison in Susanville. A rash of assaults on staff was committed on his unit, particularly when guards attempted to handcuff prisoners through the food slots in their cell doors.

Foster did not participate in any of those assaults, but his unit was locked down and prisoners were fed in their cells. During the lockdown numerous weapons were confiscated during cell searches.

On July 27, 2001, prison officials issued a memo directing that the bright light in prisoners’ cells must be on and any-thing covering the front or rear windows must be removed before the food port was opened. Failure to comply with this directive would result in forfeiture of meals.

Prison guard Sandra Cole was frequently responsible for serving meals during the lockdown.
Between July and August 2001, Cole repeatedly refused to feed Foster, claiming his cell windows were covered with paper and he refused to comply with her orders to uncover them so she could see inside his cell. Foster stated that only the rear window was covered, that Cole could see in the cell, and that no other guard required him to remove the paper in the rear window or refused to feed him because the rear window was covered.

On September 12, 2001, the warden issued a memo intending “to correct the actions of prison staff who had ‘taken it upon themselves to not feed inmates based upon the belief that any type of window covering presents a security risk.’” He made it clear that staff did not have “permission to not feed the inmates.” Even after the warden’s memo was issued, however, Cole refused to feed Foster at least two more times. Foster claimed to have lost 15 pounds in two months, while his medical records reflected a 13-pound loss over a four-month period.

Foster filed suit in federal court, alleging that the denial of food had violated his rights under the Eighth Amendment. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, finding that although “Foster had established an Eighth Amendment violation on his denial of meals claim,” Cole was entitled to qualified immunity because the constitutional right in question was not clearly established. Foster appealed.

On February 5, 2009, the Ninth Circuit found that “in total, Foster claims that he was denied 16 meals in 23 days. This is a sufficiently serious deprivation because food is one of life’s basic necessities.” The appellate court also held that Cole did not establish “how removing the paper from the rear window of a cell is a reasonable condition on the receipt of food. Nor has she explained how Foster’s failure to remove the paper from his cell’s back window jeopardized her safety or security during in-cell feeding.”

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals wrote, “Cole’s denial of food can constitute an unjustified and unnecessarily puni-tive response to a rules violation,” and the Court held that “the repeated and unjustified failure” to feed prisoners “amounts to a serious deprivation.”

Because “the risk that an inmate might suffer harm as a result of the repeated denial of meals is obvious,” the Ninth Circuit concluded “a jury could infer that Cole deliberately disregarded Foster’s need for adequate nutrition.” Consequently, the Court of Appeals found that “Foster has established a violation of his Eighth Amendment rights sufficient to withstand summary judgment.”

Turning to the question of qualified immunity, the Court held “there is no question that an inmate’s Eighth Amendment right to adequate food is clearly established.” The appellate court also determined that “a reasonable corrections officer should know that when an inmate can be fed without risk to the prison officer’s safety … the prison official cannot arbitrarily deny the inmate his meals. … A reasonable officer should know that to do so could violate the inmate’s Eighth Amendment rights by imposing punishment without penological justification.”

The Court of Appeals rejected Cole’s claim that no Ninth Circuit authority on point made her aware that her conduct was unconstitutional. “The decisions from this Circuit and others alerting prison officials of their obligations to provide inmates with nutritionally adequate meals on a regular basis should have given Cole sufficient notice of the contours of the Eighth Amendment right,” the Court explained. “Cole’s conduct was not reasonable because she took no other action to ensure that her obligation to provide Foster with meals was met. Consequently, she is not entitled to qualified immunity.” See: Foster v. Runnels, 554 F.3d 807 (9th Cir. 2009).

The case was remanded to the district court, which denied Foster’s motion to appoint counsel. A jury trial was held on June 22, 2010, and after testimony was presented and exhibits entered, the defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P., Rule 50. The court granted the motion, dismissing the case. See: Foster v. Cole, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:03-cv-01113-JAM-JFM.

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Related legal cases

Foster v. Cole

Foster v. Runnels