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$737,500 Settlement after Seventh Circuit Finds No Qualified Immunity for Prisoner's Suicide

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a district court's partial denial of qualified immunity in a case involving the suicide of a Wisconsin prisoner.

"Jessie Miller led a tragically short and troubled life. Exposed to cocaine while in utero, Miller was born into a broken home on December 3, 1987. He soon became a ward of the state and spent his childhood years rotating through 54 foster homes," where he was physically and sexually abused. At sixteen, Miller tried to kill himself by jumping from a three-story building. This marked the beginning "of what would become a veritable obsession with suicide attempts and ideation."

While incarcerated at the Dane County Jail, Miller attempted suicide on November 10, 2007. He tried again at the Dodge Correctional Institute on June 4, 2008. The Wisconsin Department of Corrections (WDOC) transferred Miller to the Wisconsin Resource Center, a mental health facility, due to his suicide attempts. While there he "continued to harm himself by swallowing razor blades and other sharp objects and banging his head against the walls."

Despite his threat to commit suicide if returned to a WDOC facility, Miller was transferred to the Columbia Correctional Institute on June 19, 2009. Three days later he refused his medication, and that night the troubled 22-year-old hanged himself with a bedsheet.

Miller's minor siblings filed suit in federal court, alleging that WDOC employees had been deliberately indifferent to his risk of suicide. The district court granted qualified immunity to 17 of the 26 defendants and denied qualified immunity to the others.

On May 24, 2012, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of qualified immunity to the defendants who sought interlocutory appeal. Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the appellate court found "it is plausible that each of the defendants-appellants were subjectively aware of Miller's serious medical condition (i.e., that he was a suicide risk) and either knowingly or recklessly disregarded it."

"Having established that plaintiff has alleged facts that, if proven, show the defendants violated a constitutional right," the Court of Appeals cited Sanville v. McCaughtry, 266 F.3d 724 (7th Cir. 2001) [PLN, Nov. 2002, p.26] in support of its conclusion that the appellants were not entitled to qualified immunity, as "the right to be free from deliberate indifference to suicide" had already been clearly established. See: Estate of Miller v. Tobiasz, 680 F.3d 984 (7th Cir. 2012), rehearing and rehearing en banc denied.

Following remand, the case settled in February 2013 with the state agreeing to pay $737,500 to Miller's estate "to resolve all plaintiffs' claims in their entirety."

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Related legal case

Estate of Miller v. Tobiasz