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Eighth Circuit Affirms Denial of Qualified Immunity

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the denial of qualified immunity to two guards on failure-to-protect claims.

Minnesota prisoner Kenneth Young was assigned to Edward Whitefeather’s cell. Almost immediately, Whitefeather threatened Young, telling him that “he would do whatever he wanted to do” in the cell “and that if Mr. Young didn’t like it, he would have to ‘deal’ with Mr. Whitefeather and his ‘boys.’”

Young told Sergeant Coolidge he “was having a problem with his roommate, who was of a different race, adding that ‘there is something wrong with the dude.’” He said “Whitefeather was ‘deranged’ and had threatened him. Mr. Young added ‘you gotta get me out of this room. I don’t want to be in a situation. I don’t want to problems with the guy.’ He asked ‘please’ to be moved from the room ‘immediately’ and offered to start packing up his things.”

Young claims Coolidge told him to write a kite. Young objected because it would take 2-3 days to get a response and he “told the sergeant that he felt threatened and ‘explained it was an emergency, urgent.’” Yet, Coolidge “blew him off.”

The next day, Young repeated his move request and the reasons for it to Sergeant Selk who was running the unit at the time. Despite telling Selk that Whitefeather had threatened him and the matter was “urgent,” Selk did not move Young or take other action.

“Later the same day…Whitefeather, with the assistance of two other inmates, attacked Mr. Young while he was lying on his bunk. They had heated a mixture of honey, hair gel, tea, and water in a microwave oven, and Mr. Whitefeather poured the hot mixture on Mr. Young’s face, neck, and chest, causing him second-degree burns. Mr. Whitefeather then beat Mr. Young with a rock, wrapped in a sock, that was the size of a fist. Mr. Young was taken to the hospital for treatment.”

Young sued Coolidge, Selk, and the Minnesota Department of Corrections in federal court for failing to protect him from the assault. He sought “Damages for physical and psychological injuries resulting from the assault.”

Defendants moved to dismiss. The court treated the motion as a request for summary judgment and granted the motion in part but denied Coolidge and Selk qualified immunity.

The Eighth Circuit affirmed the denial of qualified immunity, rejecting Defendants’ contention that Young failed to offer sufficient evidence that he actually faced a substantial risk of serious harm. The Court found that “Whitefeather’s conduct upon his arrival in Mr. Young’s cell alone raises a reasonable inference of a substantial threat of violence against the plaintiff.”

Citing Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 844-45 (1994), the Court found that prisoners “are, on the whole, ‘dangerous men,’ and…the record here supports an inference that Mr. Whitefeather was a dangerous man who was particularly volatile, that he was easily offended and enraged, and that he was willing to attack—with the assistance of his ‘boys’—when in a state of rage. We also believe that Mr. Young’s testimony about the manner in which prisoners threaten each other would support a finding that Mr. Whitefeather indeed engaged in threatening conduct, and that his remaining in the cell with Mr. Young created a substantial risk of serious harm. The fact that Mr. Young immediately sought a cell change serves only to strengthen our conclusion.”

The Court rejected Defendants’ argument that Young failed to show deliberate indifference, concluding that “Young’s evidence was sufficient to avoid summary judgment on this point.” The Court had “little difficulty concluding…that the evidence could support a finding that Sergeants Coolidge and Selk did not respond reasonably to the risk.” Finally, the Court noted that “it was no doubt clearly established long before 2004, when Mr. Young was assaulted, that the Eighth Amendment required prison officials to protect prisoners from violence at the hands of other prisoners.” See: Young v. Selk, 508 F3d 868 (8th Cir. 2007).

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Related legal case

Young v. Selk