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Disabled Oregon Detainee's ADA, Retaliation and Deliberate Indifference Claims Go to Jury

An Oregon federal court denied jail officials summary judgment on a disabled prisoner's deliberate indifference, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and retaliation claims.

Nathan Deffenbaugh is a wheelchair-bound double amputee below the knees. Most of his fingers are also amputated.

Guards at the Linn County Jail, in Albany, Oregon, know Deffenbaugh very well. Since 1991, he has been booked into the jail more than 30 times, so guards are also aware that he is sometimes difficult and combative.

Deffenbaugh scuffled with guards as they attempted to put him in a cell when he was arrested for a restraining order violation. He eventually pleaded guilty to assaulting a guard who was injured during that incident. Nevertheless, jail officials classified him as only a level 2 offender.

Initially, Deffenbaugh was locked in a holding cell, without his wheelchair or plumbing fixtures. The cell's "toilet" was a grate-covered floor drain in the center of the cell that guards could flush remotely.

Sometime after being locked in that cell, Deffenbaugh screamed "I need to take a shit," and demanded to be moved to a cell with a regular toilet. Sergeant Michael Schraeder told him to calm down but did not move him because he was supposedly too busy.

Deffenbaugh eventually defecated in a corner of the cell. "As a double amputee, he cannot 'squat' to use the floor grate and thus soiled himself," Deffenbaugh claimed. "His condition was obvious to Schraeder." Nevertheless, guards left him in the holding cell with the feces for several hours before moving him to another cell.

Deffenbaugh was eventually housed in an ordinary cell and his wheelchair was returned to him. Throughout the remainder of his confinement, however, he was denied an ADA compliant toilet or shower.

After Deffenbaugh's release from jail, he brought federal suit, alleging that jail officials violated his constitutional rights, the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act.

Deffenbaugh was returned to jail after another arrest, however, and Schraeder classified him as a level 1 "High Risk Offender" (HRO), resulting in the denial of his wheelchair for a large portion of his confinement.

This forced Deffenbaugh to walk on his stubs in the cell, which he alleged caused bleeding, bursitis and severe pain. Medical staff reported only that Deffenbaugh had dry skin and callouses and that he wanted his wheelchair, but that it was denied for security reasons. Again, Deffenbaugh was not confined in an ADA compliant cell with a wheelchair accessible or ADA compliant toilet or shower.

The district court found that with respect to Deffenbaugh's first detention, the evidence "could support a reasonable inference that...Schraeder was deliberately indifferent and punitive towards plaintiff in retaliation for his earlier assault on a deputy by requiring the defecating without an adequate toilet and the housing with the feces for many hours, thereby dehumanizing plaintiff and lessening his dignity." The court denied summary judgment, finding "as there are factual issues on...matters arising from this detention, plaintiff’s claims will go to a jury."

Likewise, "the evidence ... could support a reasonable inference that defendant Schraeder was deliberately indifferent and punitive towards plaintiff' during his second detention "in retaliation for his earlier assault on a deputy and his filing of this action," the court found. "As there are factual issues on…matters arising from this detention, plaintiffs claims will go to a jury."

Given these factual disputes, the court denied Schraeder qualified immunity with respect to both detentions.

The court also denied the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment on Deffenbaugh's ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims for the same reason: "there are numerous factual issues present that must be decided by a jury." Even so, "the record indicates that the jail's only ADA cells are in cell blocks housing vulnerable inmates and that such may result in all disabled HROs not having access to ADA cells," the court noted. "To say the least, this is troubling in light of the mandates of the ADA."

Finally, summary judgment was "precluded" on Deffenbaugh's retaliation claim "as there are factual issues as to whether Schraeder's actions were taken in retaliation or to advance a legitimate correctional goal."

Deffenbaugh is represented by Portland, Oregon attorney Lynn S. Walsh. We will report on any significant developments in the case. See: Deffenbaugh v. Linn County, U.S.D.C. (D. Or.), Case No. 6:09-cv-06347-TC; 2011 WL 1337097.

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Related legal case

Deffenbaugh v. Linn County