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Failure to Treat Tuberculosis Suit Survives Summary Judgment, Settles for $1.4 Million

Failure to Treat Tuberculosis Suit Survives Summary Judgment, Settles for $1.4 Million

by Derek Gilna

In January 2013, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington denied a motion for summary judgment filed by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), seeking qualified immunity in a Bivens lawsuit brought by Jermaine E. Satterwhite, a federal prisoner at FDC Seatac. Satterwhite claimed that prison medical staff had failed to treat his latent tuberculosis infection (LTBI) in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

The district court noted that although a Tuberculin Skin Test, or TST, given to Satterwhite upon his admission to FDC Seatac in 2008 was negative for active tuberculosis, it revealed an 18-millimeter induration that indicated symptoms of latent TB. Tuberculosis has been widely recognized as a serious and potentially fatal disease, particularly in crowded environments such as correctional facilities.

However, prison medical officials “did not discuss LTBI treatment with Satterwhite, did not refer him to a physician to be considered for treatment, and did not record anything ... regarding treatment or follow-up monitoring.” Even after he developed a “severe cough,” Satterwhite did not receive treatment for LTBI.

He was eventually transferred to a hospital where he was diagnosed with “a lesion in his right lung, enlarged lymph nodes, lytic bone lesions, a compression fracture of one of Satterwhite’s vertebra caused by an epidural mass compressing the spinal cord, and a lesion in the first lumbar vertebra – all found to have been caused by untreated, widespread tuberculosis.” As a result, he had two spinal surgeries and is now partially paralyzed.

In its program statements and medical treatment guidelines, the BOP outlines a series of tests and procedures for active and latent symptoms of TB, and Satterwhite established that those procedures were not followed in his case. The district court found the claims alleged in his complaint satisfied both the objective and subjective prongs for an Eighth Amendment violation, and held a court “‘may infer the existence of [deliberate indifference] from the fact that the risk of harm is obvious,’” citing Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730 (2002).

The district court also rejected the BOP’s qualified immunity defense, finding “the relevant, dispositive inquiry in determining whether a right is clearly established is whether it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.” Here, where BOP procedures and accepted medical practices were not followed, qualified immunity was not available.

The court concluded by stating: “A reasonable physician’s assistant, with the authority and responsibility the Court must infer ... would have known that doing nothing in the face of [Satterwhite’s LTBI] ‘posed such a substantial risk of serious harm that [it] would be constitutionally impermissible.’” See: Satterwhite v. Dy, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9178 (W.D. Wash., Jan. 23, 2013).

The BOP appealed the district court’s summary judgment order but settled the case before the Ninth Circuit issued a ruling. As part of the July 11, 2013 settlement, the BOP defendants agreed to pay $1.4 million to Satterwhite, with each party to bear their own costs and attorney’s fees. Satterwhite was represented by Seattle attorneys Michael E. Withey and Joanne R. Werner.

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Related legal case

Satterwhite v. Dy