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Fifth Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Prisoner’s Suit Claiming Lack of Medical Care

Fifth Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Prisoner’s Suit Claiming Lack of Medical Care

by Matt Clarke

On March 12, 2014, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed in part a district court’s dismissal of a lawsuit brought by a prisoner who was denied medical treatment after he fell and was injured.

Freddie R. Coleman, a Texas state prisoner, was incarcerated at the Eastham Unit when he slipped in the shower, hurting himself. Six days later he fell in the shower again. In severe pain, Coleman was examined by visiting physician assistant Cheryl McManus, who ordered an X-ray which she said indicated he had arthritis of the hip. The X-ray technician disagreed, but McManus stuck to her opinion, refused to issue pain medication and cleared Coleman to return to work on crutches.

Coleman continued to experience severe pain. He fell in the shower a third time when his crutches slipped. Then the facility was placed on lockdown. During the lockdown, he experienced so much pain that he could not lie in bed or sit on a toilet, and was forced to defecate in a bowl.

Coleman sent repeated written requests for medical assistance to the infirmary. They were answered and disregarded by Nurse Practitioner Brenda Hough. Four days into the lockdown, Hough saw Coleman in his cell but refused to examine him. Coleman informed Assistant Warden Debbie Erwin and Major Craig Fisher of his injury as they were making rounds during the lockdown; Erwin wrote down his name but did nothing to help him.

After the lockdown ended, Hough examined Coleman and ordered X-rays which could not be taken for another three days due to the X-ray technician being absent. Coleman objected, but she told him to “tough it out three more days” and refused to issue pain medication.

The X-rays showed a fractured hip, and Hough apologized for ignoring his previous complaints. Coleman was transported to an outside hospital where doctors inserted four pins and a plate during surgery. He continued to suffer from severe pain.

Coleman filed a § 1983 federal civil rights action against prison security and medical staff, alleging they were aware of the slippery showers, did nothing to fix that problem and denied him timely medical treatment for his severe injury. He agreed to proceed with a magistrate judge trying the case.

The magistrate noted that Coleman had not included the slippery shower issue in his grievances and thus had not exhausted administrative remedies against “security personnel.” Further, the district court “essentially held” that “prisoner slip-and-fall claims almost never serve as the predicate for constitutional violations as a matter of law.” Thus, the magistrate dismissed all defendants in the case except McManus.

The U.S. Marshals were unable to serve McManus and the Attorney General’s office was unable to provide her current address. The magistrate ordered Coleman to provide a current address for service, but refused to allow him discovery to seek the address from McManus’ employer, UTMB. When he failed to provide the address, the magistrate judge dismissed the suit – effectively with prejudice since the statute of limitations had run. Coleman appealed.

The Fifth Circuit held that the slippery shower claims were properly dismissed, but Erwin and Fisher allegedly knew about Coleman’s injuries and the lack of medical attention, and Hough had allegedly failed to provide treatment. Further, the magistrate should have allowed the requested discovery with respect to McManus’ address and dismissal of the suit was excessive.

Accordingly, the district court’s judgment was reversed with respect to Erwin, Fisher and Hough on the medical claims, and to McManus due to failure to effect service, but was upheld as to the other defendants and the slippery shower claim. This case remains pending on remand. See: Coleman v. Sweetin, 745 F.3d 756 (5th Cir. 2014).


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Related legal case

Coleman v. Sweetin