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Tenth Circuit Affirms Denial of Qualified Immunity to Oklahoma Jail Official Who Failed to Follow Prescribed Medical Instructions

On October 14, 2011 the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court’s denial of summary judgment, on the ground of qualified immunity, to Payne County, Oklahoma jail administrator Brandon Myers. The appellate court held that a reasonable jury could find that Myers was deliberately indifferent to pretrial detainee John David Palmer’s serious need for medical treatment, in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. PLN readers should note that deliberate indifference claims for pretrial detainees are brought under the Fourteenth Amendment while similar claims involving convicted prisoners are brought under the Eighth Amendment.

In August 2007, while being held pending trial at the Payne County Jail, Palmer suffered from a serious infection commonly known as MRSA. He was transported to an outside doctor, who administered an injection of an antibiotic. The doctor instructed Palmer to return for a follow-up visit in two days, but warned that if he developed a fever or reported increased pain, he should be taken to a hospital immediately. It was undisputed that this information was conveyed to Myers.

Upon his return to the jail, Palmer’s level of pain increased to the point that he was vomiting and crying. He reported this to Myers, along with the outside doctor’s instructions, and requested that he be taken to an emergency room. According to Palmer, Myers told him to “shut the fuck up or go back to the main jail where you got the disease.”

Palmer was eventually transported to the emergency room, but only after a delay of about a day. He underwent surgery for the MRSA infection and claimed to suffer both nerve damage and scarring. Additionally, he reported incurring over $24,000 in medical costs.

The Tenth Circuit had little trouble dispensing with Myers’ arguments on appeal that he did not know or appreciate the seriousness of Palmer’s condition and, in particular, did not know that Palmer was suffering from MRSA. As the Court of Appeals put it, “such lay ignorance of medical matters is precisely the reason for the rule ... that noncompliance with the treatment prescribed by medical professionals is one form of deliberate indifference.”

Moreover, the appellate court noted, there was no support for Myers’ argument that a jail official could ignore a prisoner’s complaints of pain merely because those complaints were subjective. See: Palmer v. Board of Commissioners for Payne County, Oklahoma, 441 Fed.Appx. 582 (10th Cir. 2011) (unpublished).

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Related legal case

Palmer v. Board of Commissioners for Payne County, Oklahoma