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Qualified Immunity Denied to Michigan Guard for Improper Strip Search of Amputee Prisoner

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of qualified immunity to a Michigan prison guard who allegedly strip searched a prisoner without a legitimate penological reason for doing so. The appellate court also vacated the denial of qualified immunity to a warden who sanctioned the prisoner’s placement in isolation, remanding for consideration of the warden’s qualified immunity defense.

When Martinique Stoudemire entered Michigan’s prison system at the age of 23 in July 2002, she had a lengthy documented history of health problems. Absent proper care, she was at significant risk of experiencing kidney and liver damage, heart attacks, amputations and chronic pain. After arriving at the Huron Valley Women’s Correctional Facility (Huron), her health quickly deteriorated.

By the time she was paroled in 2007, Stoudemire had undergone three amputations, eventually losing both legs below the knee. She attributed her health complications to the failure of prison staff, nurses and associated doctors to provide adequate medical care. The appeal in her lawsuit focused on her final amputation in December 2007, when she contracted a MRSA infection and was quarantined in Huron’s segregation unit. [See: PLN, May 2007, p.1].

Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) policy provides for prisoners with MRSA to be quarantined, and the warden at Huron, Susan Davis, designated the facility’s segregation unit as a quarantine location. Pursuant to that policy, Stoudemire spent two weeks in segregation.

While there she received “extremely poor” medical care: The cell was not equipped for disabled prisoners, and she was not provided with assistive devices to safely move between her bed, wheelchair, toilet and shower. Medical staff treated her with contempt, accused her of malingering and responded with hostility when she sought assistance. She was once forced to urinate in a bowl, defecated on herself once, received only one shower in the two weeks she spent in segregation and had to dress her own wounds.

Warden Davis argued that she was entitled to qualified immunity on Stoudemire’s claim that the segregation conditions amounted to deliberate indifference to her serious medical needs. The Sixth Circuit found the district court did not make factual findings pertaining to Davis or her mental state or knowledge of the facts alleged by Stoudemire, and remanded that issue to the lower court to make such findings and rule on Davis’ qualified immunity defense.

The Court of Appeals then addressed a claim against prison guard Ariel N. Dunagan, who strip searched Stoudemire on February 10, 2007. An MDOC reprimand noted that “other persons could have observed” Stoudemire during the strip search because Dunagan failed to block a window in the cell door, and Dunagan admitted that such “visual contact” was possible.

Stoudemire alleged the search was “undertaken to harass or humiliate” her. The appellate court wrote that prisoners have a diminished right to be secure in their persons against unreasonable searches, but “a strip search is a particularly extreme invasion of that right.” The Sixth Circuit said such searches require exigent circumstances.

Three facts, the Court of Appeals found, indicated that the search was invasive. First, the location allowed people in the hall outside Stoudemire’s cell to view the search. Next, Dunagan refused to tell Stoudemire the reasons for the strip search. Dunagan also smirked during the search, which may suggest “personal animus and implicate the dignitary interest ‘inherent in the privacy component of the Fourth Amendment’s proscription against unreasonable searches.’”

The Court emphasized it was not reviewing MDOC policy, but rather considering the acts of a guard who violated that policy and was sued in her individual capacity. It found the right at issue was clearly established, precluding qualified immunity. The district court’s order was vacated in part, affirmed in part, and remanded for a determination of Warden Davis’ qualified immunity defense and of Davis and Dunagan’s immunity defense to Stoudemire’s state law claims. See: Stoudemire v. Michigan Dept. of Corrections, 705 F.3d 560 (6th Cir. 2013).

Following remand, on September 25, 2013 the district court granted Stoudemire’s motion to reopen the record to obtain “new evidence in opposition to the MDOC Defendants’ motion to dismiss and for summary judgment.” The case remains pending.

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