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Ninth Circuit: “Debatable” Constitutionality Requires Qualified Immunity

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that prison officials were entitled to qualified immunity for refusing to surgically repair a prisoner’s umbilical hernia because it was “debatable” whether they had complied with the Eighth Amendment.

Washington state prisoner Fleet Hamby suffered a “small” and “easily reducible” umbilical hernia while working in April 2012. Medical staff told him that he could push the hernia back into his abdomen by applying manual pressure.

Two weeks later, Hamby complained of abdominal pain, tenderness and swelling. He was prescribed medication and a “rib belt” for support. By the end of 2012, Hamby had been seen at least ten times for complaints related to his hernia and was denied surgical repair at least twice. He was seen by a doctor at a different prison in March 2013, but that doctor also determined surgery was not medically necessary.

In August 2013, Hamby’s attorney requested that prison officials reconsider his need for hernia surgery. The case was presented to the prison’s Care Review Committee (CRC), which denied the request, again finding the surgery unnecessary.

In January 2014, Hamby filed a federal lawsuit seeking injunctive relief and monetary damages for deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs. He later moved for a preliminary injunction for surgical repair of his hernia. The district court granted the injunction in August 2014, ordering prison officials to refer Hamby to a surgeon for evaluation and treatment. On October 13, 2014, Hamby’s umbilical hernia was surgically repaired.

He continued with the litigation, seeking damages for the pain he suffered due to the prison’s refusal to provide surgery prior to litigation. The court granted summary judgment to the defendants, finding they had not been deliberately indifferent to Hamby’s serious medical needs and, even if they were, they were entitled to qualified immunity.

A panel of the Ninth Circuit affirmed on May 2, 2016 in a two-to-one decision. The majority explained that the qualified immunity analysis asks if, “viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Hamby, was it ‘beyond debate,’ at the time the prison officials acted, that their conduct violated the Constitution?” The appellate court then answered that question in the negative, finding that “even when the facts are viewed most favorably to Hamby, it is at least debatable that the prison officials here complied with the Eighth Amendment.”

The dissenting judge argued that Hamby’s “evidence was sufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact on whether ‘the course of treatment the doctors chose was medically unacceptable under the circumstances,’ and whether they ‘chose this course in conscious disregard of an excessive risk’ to Hamby’s health.” That dissent further stated that “this case should have gone to a jury as the trier of fact, with the guidance of correct jury instructions on deliberate indifference. It should not have been resolved by summary judgment of the district court.” See: Hamby v. Hammond, 821 F.3d 1085 (9th Cir. 2016). 

Related legal case

Hamby v. Hammond