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Ohio Prison Guards Denied Qualified Immunity for Leaving Prisoner Handcuffed for 12 Hours

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court’s grant of qualified immunity to prison officials in a federal civil rights action alleging violations of a prisoner’s rights under the Eighth Amendment.

Ohio state prisoner Jasen Barker filed a lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that alleged “highly disputed” facts regarding an incident that occurred on February 7, 2007 at the London Correctional Institution (LCI). He sued the prison and eleven guards. The facts, in the light most favorable to Barker, indicated that he was taking medication that made him drowsy, which caused him to occasionally be asleep during the four o’clock count. A guard would usually wake him and remind him he had to be sitting up during count time.

On the day in question, however, LCI guard Andrew Goodrich woke Barker during count and immediately escorted him to the Captain’s office. Barker was placed in an observation cell, handcuffed behind his back. His requests for mental health services were ignored and he remained in the cell until 8:00 a.m. the next day. While confined he was unable to urinate or get a drink of water and could not lie or sit down comfortably, so he mostly stood. He also missed a meal. At the time a deposition was taken in the case he was still experiencing problems with his wrists, especially when writing letters.

On January 10, 2010, a magistrate judge granted summary judgment to all the defendants on the basis of qualified immunity, finding that the evidence “established a constitutional violation, but the right at issue was not clearly established.”

Several issues were presented on appeal. The first concerned granting qualified immunity to LCI. Since LCI is an arm of the state, it is not eligible for such a defense. It could assert sovereign immunity but had not done so, and thus that defense was waived. Therefore, the grant of qualified immunity to LCI was reversed.

Next, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of qualified immunity to the individual guards for monetary damages in their official capacity, but clarified that Barker could still obtain declaratory and injunctive relief against those defendants.

The Court of Appeals then considered the guards’ claim of qualified immunity in their individual capacity. The Court agreed with the district court’s finding that Barker had presented evidence which, if true, constituted Eighth Amendment violations for excessive force and a conditions of confinement claim.

That evidence established “there was no penological need to keep Barker handcuffed once he was placed in the detention cell, that Barker was nonresistant and did not refuse to have the handcuffs removed, and that Barker was handcuffed behind his back for 12 hours, during which time he missed a meal and was unable to sit or lie down without pain ...,” the appellate court wrote. “Barker was denied adequate access to water and a restroom, and forced to maintain an uncomfortable position for an extended period of time, subjecting him to a significant risk of wrist and arm problems, dehydration and thirst, and pain and damage to the bladder.”

The Sixth Circuit found that this was a denial of the “minimal civilized measures of life’s necessities,” and constituted excessive use of force. The appellate court also held that the “[d]efendants had fair warning in 2007 that their conduct was unconstitutional. Case law from the Supreme Court, this Court, and other circuits established at that time that each condition seen here – restraining an inmate in an uncomfortable position, denying access to water, and denying access to the toilet – could rise to an Eighth Amendment violation if allowed to persist for an extended period.”

The defendants therefore had notice that their conduct was unconstitutional, and thus were not entitled to qualified immunity. The district court’s order was accordingly affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded for further proceedings. See: Barker v. Goodrich, 649 F.3d 428 (6th Cir. 2011).

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Related legal case

Barker v. Goodrich