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Sixth Circuit: Failed Cancer Diagnosis Not Deliberately Indifferent

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a lower court's denial of qualified immunity to a Michigan prison doctor and nurse accused of failing to diagnose a prisoner's bone cancer.

On February 13, 2007, Mound Correctional Facility prisoner Joshua Reilly complained of a headache and swelling above his left eye. Dr. Seetha Vadlamudi recommended applying a warm compress to the eye; three days later, Reilly was told to take Tylenol and drink coffee for his headache.

Reilly again complained of a bump over his left eye in June 2007. Nurse Phillip Payne "concluded the bump was an innocuous calcium nodule, and recommended no treatment." Payne referred Reilly to an optometrist on October 7, 2007.

Over two months later, Nurse Terry Smith saw Reilly for "an eleven-month history of left eye problems." She reported "a small nodule" under Reilly's left eyebrow, "recommended he take Tylenol, and told him to report back if he experienced continued vomiting" due to his severe headaches. Soon after this examination, Reilly was released from prison.

An April 2008 CT scan "revealed the nodule was cancerous, and doctors ultimately diagnosed [Reilly] with Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that develops in bone or soft tissue."

Reilly filed a federal lawsuit against Dr. Vadlamudi and nurses Payne and Smith, alleging that "surgery would have been sufficient to treat the disease had prison medical staff detected it earlier." However, due to the late diagnosis,

Reilly had to undergo chemotherapy and radiation.

The defendants moved for judgment on the pleadings, raising the defense of qualified immunity. After the district court denied their motion, Vadlamudi and Payne filed an interlocutory appeal in which they argued that their involvement in Reilly's care was minimal and, therefore, did not support findings of deliberate indifference or gross negligence.

The Sixth Circuit agreed, noting that Dr. Vadlamudi had only a single contact with Reilly, who had no history of any symptoms suggesting cancer. The appellate court found that Reilly's complaint did not allege sufficient facts from which deliberate indifference could be inferred because "when Dr. Vadlamudi treated Plaintiff, there was no indication he was suffering from a rare form of bone cancer – only minor symptoms."

Likewise, Nurse Payne had had only two contacts with Reilly and ultimately referred him to an optometrist. The Court of Appeals found that "none of the allegations against Payne demonstrate an act or omission 'sufficiently harmful to evidence deliberate indifference to serious medical needs.'" In fact, Reilly's "most severe symptoms occurred after his contacts" with Payne and Vadlamudi.

Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court and ordered "the entry of judgment in favor of Dr. Vadlamudi and Payne." Nurse Smith did not join in the appeal. See: Reilly v. Vadlamudi, 680 F.3d 617 (6th Cir. 2012).

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Related legal case

Reilly v. Vadlamudi