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Tenth Circuit: No Qualified Immunity for Juvenile Restraint Chair Punishment

Tenth Circuit: No Qualified Immunity for Juvenile Restraint Chair Punishment

by Mark Wilson

On November 8, 2013, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the denial of qualified immunity in a case that involved the shackling of a juvenile detainee in a restraint chair as punishment and denial of mental health care.

In 1997, Brandon Blackmon was confined in a Sedgwick, Kansas juvenile detention center awaiting trial on charges of rape, which were later dismissed.

Deeply distraught and suicidal, the eleven-year-old, 4’11”, 96-pound boy repeatedly banged his head against the walls. Guards responded by shackling Blackmon in a Pro-Straint Model RC-1200LX restraint chair, keeping him there long “after any threat of self-harm had dissipated.”

Staff members were openly instructed “to use the chair as ‘punishment.’” Blackmon “was stripped out of his clothes and forced to wear a paper gown while restrained in the chair,” resulting in severe mental health problems.

Further, a guard at the facility, Keith Gutierrez, “approved a decision by one of his subordinates – a fully grown man – to sit on” Blackmon’s chest, without any apparent legitimate penological purpose.

Mental Health Unit Supervisor Joan Fitzjarrald and Mental Health Team Counselor Kirk Taylor failed to provide Blackmon with meaningful mental health treatment. “Because they are not licensed mental health care professionals,” they claimed, “they could not have provided any mental health care to Mr. Blackmon even if they had wanted to.”

Blackmon filed suit in January 2005, alleging that placement in the restraint chair, other punishments, the denial of mental health treatment and the detention center’s refusal to transfer him to another facility violated his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The district court denied the defendants’ motion for qualified immunity, and they filed an interlocutory appeal.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed as to all but one of Blackmon’s claims. “Though the law of pretrial detention may not have been precise in all its particulars in 1997,” the appellate court observed, “pretrial detainees are not men without countries, persons without any clearly defined legal rights. By 1997, it was beyond debate that a pretrial detainee enjoys at least the same constitutional protections as a convicted criminal.”

The appellate court noted that Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979) “forbids punishment altogether for pretrial detainees like Mr. Blackmon. And there is ample evidence in this case that the defendants at least sometimes used the Pro-Straint chair to punish their young charge.” Therefore, a qualified immunity defense was inapplicable to Blackmon’s restraint chair claims.

“Much the same reasoning” applied to Blackmon’s claim that a guard sat on his chest. The Court of Appeals rejected the argument that the guard’s conduct was justified because “Blackmon ‘refused to do as he was told.’” There was “no evidence suggesting what Mr. Blackmon failed to do, ... what legitimate penological purpose was in play in forcing him to respond ... [or] suggesting why officials thought it reasonable to effect that purpose by having a grown man sit on a 96-pound boy,” the Court wrote.

Qualified immunity was also precluded on Blackmon’s mental health treatment claims. “Ms. Fitzjarrald and Mr. Taylor don’t deny that they were at least the mental health ‘gate keepers’ at the juvenile detention facility,” the appellate court found. “They don’t deny that they were well aware of Mr. Blackmon’s grave mental health problems, that they were aware those problems grew worse during his stay, or that their routine resort to the Pro-Straint chair wasn’t helping. The facts suggest, too, that the pair delayed and denied him access to mental health care by qualified professionals.”

Although the Tenth Circuit acknow­ledged there were legitimate uses for the restraint chair, including to prevent self-harm, using it to inflict punishment was “the nub of this lawsuit.” Accordingly, the district court’s order denying qualified immunity was affirmed as to all of Blackmon’s claims except his refusal to transfer claim. See: Blackmon v. Sutton, 734 F.3d 1237 (10th Cir. 2013).

The case went to trial following remand and on October 29, 2014 the jury found in favor of the defendants, ending the almost decade-long litigation.


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Related legal case

Blackmon v. Sutton