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Sixth Circuit Reinstates Michigan Prisoner’s Denial of Toothpaste Suit

On May 6, 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the dismissal of a Michigan prisoner’s federal civil rights lawsuit in which he claimed he was denied toothpaste for nearly a year.

In January 2005, while held at the Newberry Correctional Facility, Jerry Flanory was placed on cell restriction for refusing to participate in the prison’s General Equivalency Degree (GED) program. Flanory asserted that he had both a GED and an Associate Degree, but prison officials failed to verify either. Flanory remained on cell restriction until the prison’s new principal verified his Associate Degree in November 2005.

In total, Flanory spent 337 days on cell restriction. During that time he was denied indigent status, which meant the only way he could obtain toothpaste was to buy it from the prison commissary. Since Flanory was on restriction and therefore unable to participate in prison work programs, he could not earn money to purchase toothpaste.

Flanory sued multiple defendants pursuant to U.S.C. § 1983 on May 1, 2008, claiming that his inability to obtain toothpaste violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. He specifically alleged that a dental examination in October 2004 revealed no dental problems. However, during a subsequent dental exam in September 2005, Flanory was diagnosed with periodontal disease of the gums and one tooth was extracted.

On January 5, 2009, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan adopted a magistrate’s report and recommendation that recommended dismissal of Flanory’s suit for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. See: Flanory v. Bonn, U.S.D.C. (W.D. MI), Case No. 2:08-cv-00108; 2009 WL 33472.

Flanory appealed, pro se.

The Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that Flanory had met both the objective and subjective requirements of a legitimate Eighth Amendment claim. The objective component was satisfied by Flanory’s assertion that he was deprived of toothpaste for 337 days and was subsequently diagnosed with periodontal disease and had a tooth extracted. This evidenced a sufficiently serious injury.

The subjective component, which requires a showing that prison officials knew of and acted with deliberate indifference to a prisoner’s health or safety, was met because Flanory had filed grievances notifying prison officials that he was without toothpaste. This was bolstered by the officials’ responses to Flanory’s grievances, which indicated they were aware of the situation.

Therefore, dismissal was improper and the case was remanded to the district court for further proceedings, where it remains pending. See: Flanory v. Bonn, 604 F.3d 249 (6th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal cases

Flanory v. Bonn

Flanory v. Bonn