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Idaho Court Affirms Dismissal of Prisoner's Civil Rights Lawsuit Which Sought Relief for Denial of a Dental Pick

by Lonnie Burton

On November 4, 2016, the Idaho Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court order which dismissed a lawsuit filed by a state prisoner which had alleged improper dental care, threats, and unconstitutional disciplinary procedures. The court found that the prisoner submitted no genuine issues of material facts suitable for trial, mandating dismissal of the case.

Michael T. Hayes, an Idaho state prisoner at the Idaho Correctional Center, sued several prison officials alleging violations of his constitutional rights. Hayes' claims included the following: In July 2011, while housed in segregation, prison staff denied his request for a dental pick. Hayes alleged that this denial cause food to be stuck between his teeth which resulted in a severe gum infections which required antibiotics. Hayes' second claim was that the same staff -- Sgt. Flemming Green -- who denied him the dental pick, made threatening and disparaging remarks to him, including a threat to punch Hayes in the face if he continued to "smart off" to him. Lastly, Hayes claimed unconstitutional disciplinary procedures for a hearing at which Hayes said he was found guilty of an unnamed offense based on a false disciplinary report and no due process.

After prison officials filed for summary judgment asking the court to dismiss as defendants several prison staff whom Hayes had not served, and that the remaining claims failed to state a claim for which relief could be granted, Hayes filed a motion to amend his complaint. The trial court denied that motion because defendants had already filed a responsive document. The trial court granted the summary judgment motion and dismissed the case. Hayes appealed.

The Idaho Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal, refusing to address the trial court's denial of Hayes' motion to amend because Hayes did not properly present the issue in his appeal. As to the dental care claim, the appellate court held the trial court properly dismissed it because unlike cases where courts have held that the denial of toothpaste or a toothbrush for a prolonged period of time can create a substantial risk of harm, there was simply no case or evidence that the denial of a dental pick created a similar risk or even caused Hayes' gum disease.

The court further found that the threats allegedly made by Sgt. Green, while "inappropriate, do not rise to the level of a constitutional violation." Finally, the court of appeals said Hayes disciplinary hearing claim was not cognizable because even if everything Hayes claimed were true, his complaint failed to raise a claim as he, while found guilty, was never punished for the unspecified infraction. "Hayes failed to show that he had a protected liberty interest sufficient to implicate a Fourteenth Amendment due process violation," the court wrote.

The court of appeals affirmed the lower court in all respects and awarded costs in favor of defendants. See: Hayes v. Kessler, No. 43327 (C.A. Id. 2016).

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Related legal case

Hayes v. Kessler