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Seventh Circuit Rejects Prisoner’s 1983 Claim but Criticizes Controlling Precedent

Seventh Circuit Rejects Prisoner’s 1983 Claim but Criticizes Controlling Precedent

by Derek Gilna

It’s not often that a federal appellate court criticizes the precedent that it feels obligated to follow, but that is what happened in a civil rights lawsuit filed by Illinois state prisoner Earnest Shields.

Shields sued prison medical staff and the Illinois DOC’s private medical contractor, Wexford Health Sources, which he alleged had bungled his treatment for a torn tendon he suffered while lifting weights, causing him permanent injuries. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s dismissal of Shields’ constitutional claims, finding that while there was negligence by Wexford, Shields had failed to prove the necessary elements of “deliberate indifference” by individual defendants.

The controlling precedent criticized by the appellate court was Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), which held that “respondeat superior is not a basis for rendering municipalities liable under § 1983 for the constitutional torts of their employees.” Instead, the Monell court said, § 1983 liability can be found only if “the government’s own policy or custom had caused the violation.” The Monell standard has been extended to private companies acting under color of state law, although the Supreme Court has not directly addressed that issue.

The Seventh Circuit critiqued the Monell standard, which shields corporations from unconstitutional conduct unless their violations resulted from a policy or custom. “Private prison employees and prison medical providers have frequent opportunities, through their positions, to violate inmates’ constitutional rights,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “It is also generally cheaper to provide sub-standard care than it is to provide adequate care. Private prisons and prison medical providers are subject to market pressures. Their employees have financial incentives to save money at the expense of inmates’ well-being and constitutional rights. The unavailability of qualified immunity for these employees is a deterrent against such conduct, but respondeat superior liability for the employer itself is likely to be more effective at deterring such actions.”

The Court continued, “If the Monell policy/custom standard did not apply here, we would reverse the district court’s grant of summary judgment for Wexford. Shields has offered evidence showing that the corporation was responsible for his health care. As an entity, the company knew of his injury, its severity, the need for surgery, and the complete failure of physical therapy.... Wexford nevertheless failed to ensure that Shields received the surgery he needed to avoid permanent impairment of his shoulder. These facts would support respondeat superior liability for Wexford and would lead us to reverse summary judgment for Wexford on that ground.”

The appellate court concluded, “There is ample evidence here that plaintiff Shields was the victim of delayed medical care that has left him with a serious and permanent injury that could have been avoided.” However, “The evidence suggests that he is the victim not of any one human being’s deliberate indifference but of a system of medical care that diffused responsibility for his care to the point that no single individual was responsible for seeing that he received the care he needed in a timely way. As a result, no one person can be held liable for any constitutional violation. Finally, Shields’ efforts to rely on state medical malpractice law against the Wexford defendants appear to have run afoul of [state court] procedures....”

Accordingly, the district court’s order dismissing the case was affirmed. Shields appealed to the Supreme Court for certiorari review, which was denied on January 12, 2015. See: Shields v. Ill. Dept. of Corr., 746 F.3d 782 (7th Cir. 2014), cert. denied.


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Related legal case

Shields v. Ill. Dept. of Corr.