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Ninth Circuit: Delay in Providing Dental Care May Constitute Deliberate Indifference

In an unpublished ruling, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel reversed in part a district court’s grant of summary judgment to prison officials who, a prisoner alleged, were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs.

In 2008, Nevada prisoner Martinez Aytch filed numerous requests for dental treatment for a “rotten” tooth that was causing him “awful” and “unbearable” pain. Nearly six weeks after filing an informal grievance alerting prison officials to his submission of five medical “kites,” Aytch received pain medication and antibiotics but still had not seen a dentist. His informal grievance was denied.

Aytch then filed a § 1983 complaint alleging that prison officials had been deliberately indifferent to his dental needs; he also alleged they were deliberately indifferent to his vision problems. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the prison officials, and Aytch appealed.

Noting that Aytch’s vision problems had been addressed when he received eyeglasses, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment with respect to that issue.

Relying on precedent, however, such as Hunt v. Dental Dep’t, 865 F.2d 198 (9th Cir. 1989), the appellate court held that Aytch had raised a triable issue as to whether or not the delay in providing dental care – when considered in light of the pain he had to endure as a result of that delay – constituted deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs.

The Court of Appeals noted that budgetary constraints do not absolve prison officials from liability for such indifference, and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings. See: Aytch v. Sablica, 498 Fed.Appx. 703 (9th Cir. 2012) (unpublished).

Following remand, and after Aytch filed numerous motions related to discovery issues and his ability to access the prison law library and obtain legal copies, the case went to trial in November 2013. The jury found in favor of the defendants and Aytch filed a notice of appeal. In January 2014 the district court denied his motion for transcripts at the government’s expense, as it would not certify that the appeal was not frivolous pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 753(f). Aytch litigated the case, including the trial, pro se. See: Aytch v. Sablica, U.S.D.C. (D. Nev.), Case No. 2:08-cv-01773-VCF-VCF.

On March 6, 2014, in another case involving a prisoner alleging inadequate dental care, the Ninth Circuit held in an en banc decision that prison officials sued for money damages may raise a defense of lack of available resources to justify the failure to provide adequate medical care. This is contrary to the appellate ruling in Aytch and other established precedent, and PLN will report the en banc decision in greater detail in a future issue. See: Peralta v. Dillard, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 4226 (9th Cir. 2014).

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