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Ninth Circuit Rules Sheriff May be Held Liable for Violence in Los Angeles County Jails

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held in a revised ruling that Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca could be held liable for his subordinates causing dangerous conditions in the Los Angeles County Jail system (LACJ). The appellate court also found that Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009) [PLN, July 2009, p.18] did not eliminate supervisory liability claims in prison conditions cases brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Dion Starr was an LACJ prisoner when he was assaulted by other prisoners and beaten, stabbed, and severely and permanently injured in 2006. The deputies at the jail, far from ensuring Starr’s safety, allegedly assisted his attackers by opening his cell door to let them in. After the other prisoners left, deputies allegedly entered Starr’s cell, called him racial slurs, beat him and delayed medical assistance.

Starr filed a § 1983 suit in federal court against the deputies who assaulted him and Sheriff Baca, alleging that Baca knew of numerous incidents of prisoner-on-prisoner violence and LACJ employee misconduct but had failed to take corrective action, thus making him liable for the assault. The district court dismissed Baca as a defendant because Starr did not allege that the sheriff had personally participated in the assault or the ensuing investigation, or had promulgated any policy that allowed the assault to occur. Starr appealed.

Baca claimed on appeal that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Iqbal had eliminated supervisory liability in § 1983 cases. The Ninth Circuit ordered special briefing on the issue. The appellate court then decided that Iqbal, which involved a claim of purposeful discrimination, did not eliminate supervisory liability in conditions-of-confinement suits. In doing so, the Court of Appeals wrote it was in agreement with three other circuits, the 1st, 7th and 10th, that had addressed the same question.

Noting that under the prevailing deliberate indifference standard a claim of supervisory liability in prison conditions cases requires that the supervisor knew of and acquiesced in the unconstitutional conduct, the Ninth Circuit held that that standard was not the same as vicarious liability, which was prohibited by Iqbal. Instead, the deliberate indifference standard makes supervisors liable for their own culpable actions or inaction.

Starr’s complaint also could not be dismissed under Rule 8(a), Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, as the district court had held. The rules require only that Starr present a short, plain statement of the claim showing he is entitled to relief. “Starr’s complaint specifically alleges numerous incidents in which inmates in Los Angeles County jails have been killed or injured because of the culpable actions of the subordinates of Sheriff Baca. The complaint specifically alleges that Sheriff Baca was given notice of all of these incidents,” as well as reports of systemic problems in LACJ which resulted in prisoner deaths and injuries.

“Finally, [the complaint] alleges that Sheriff Baca did not take action to protect inmates under his care despite the dangers, caused by his subordinates, of which he had been made aware. These allegations are neither ‘bald’ nor ‘conclusory.’” Thus, Starr had satisfied the notice pleading requirements, and the district court’s dismissal of Sheriff Baca was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings.

Starr was represented by Culver City attorneys Sonia Maria Mercado and R. Samuel Paz. The initial appellate decision was issued on February 11, 2011, but was superseded by a revised ruling on July 25, 2011. The defendants filed a petition for rehearing en banc, which was denied in October 2011 with eight circuit judges joining a dissenting opinion. See: Starr v. Baca, 652 F.3d 1202 (9th Cir. 2011), petition for rehearing en banc denied, 659 F.3d 850 (9th Cir. 2011).

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