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Fifth Circuit Disallows Louisiana Deputy's Interlocutory Appeal

by Matt Clarke

In an opinion filed on November 18, 2011, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that it had no jurisdiction over a Louisiana deputy's appeal from the denial of his motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity in a civil rights suit involving denial of medical care to an arrestee.

St. Tammany Parish Deputy Bryan Steinert stopped a vehicle driven by Anthony Brown. After finding an empty pill bottle and a bag containing cocaine residue in the vehicle, Steinert arrested Brown and his two passengers and locked them into the back of his patrol car. Steinert put a digital recorder in the patrol car to record the conversation among the arrestees while he called and waited for a wrecker. Before leaving the arrest scene, Steinert noticed that Brown had moved his handcuffed hands from behind his back to in front. Steinert reset the handcuffs.

About fifty minutes after the stop, Steinert took the three to the local sheriff's annex. There, he listened to the recording and learned that one of the arrestees had swallowed something, but it was unclear to him who swallowed what. A closer search of one passenger turned up Soma (prescription muscle relaxant) pills. About an hour later, Steinert left the sheriff's annex to transport the three to a jail. He did not ask them whether any of them needed medical attention and none of them told him they did.

According to Brown's two passengers, they began telling Steinert that Brown was in medical distress about halfway to the jail. They allege to have requested that Steinert take Brown to the hospital after telling him that Brown had eaten a bag of cocaine and a Soma pill. Steinert claims to have never heard them tell him anything about Brown's medical condition. Videotape from the jail taken three-and-one-half hours after the arrest shows that Brown was in medical distress upon arrival and collapsed in convulsions soon after exiting the patrol car. The videotape also shows that neither jail security nor medical personnel who were present in the jail's sally-port entrance gave Brown any medical treatment.

Brown was loaded into an ambulance that arrived about fifteen minutes after the patrol car. On the way to the hospital, Brown suffered two heart attacks and his body temperature rose to 107°. This caused a shortage of oxygen to the brain which resulted in permanent brain damage. Brown is totally disabled and is cared for by his family, including his wife and minor son, who filed a civil rights action in federal district court alleging that Steinert and two other deputies were deliberately indifferent to Brown's serious medical needs. The suit included a pendent state law claim of negligence.

Defendants moved for summary judgment which the court granted in part and denied in part. The only remaining issues were the negligence claim and the § 1983 claims against Steinert in his personal capacity and Deputy Rodney J. Strain in his official capacity. Defendants filed an interlocutory appeal.

The Fifth Circuit noted that it had jurisdiction on interlocutory appeal to determine whether a certain course of conduct would, as a matter of law, be objectively unreasonable in light of clearly-established law. However, it lacked jurisdiction to review whether genuine issues of fact exist to prove that the defendants did, in fact, engage in such conduct. The only issues in this appeal are of the latter kind. This is the type of issue which hinges on determinations about the credibility of the witnesses and truth of the facts they allege, not whether the facts, if taken as true, prove deliberate indifference. Therefore, the court dismissed Steinert's appeal for want of jurisdiction. It also dismissed an interlocutory appeal attempt by Strain because official capacity defendants may not raise an immunity defense on interlocutory appeal. See: Brown v. Strain, 663 F.3d 245 (5th Cir. 2011).

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Related legal case

Brown v. Strain