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Sixth Circuit Upholds Denial of Summary Judgment to Prison Officials in Michigan Failure-to-Protect Lawsuit

On April 15, 2016, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit let stand a federal district court ruling which denied summary judgment to Wayne County, Michigan, jail officials in a lawsuit alleging that a former prisoner was beaten to death by another prisoner and that jail officials knew or should have known of the killer's violent propensities. The appellate court also dismissed Wayne County's interlocutory appeal on the basis of qualified immunity for lack of jurisdiction.

Jeffrey Horvath was arrested on September 23, 2011, for a nonviolent misdemeanor and booked into the Wayne County jail. After the toilet in his cell malfunctioned, Horvath was moved to another cell where another prisoner named Gillespie was later placed. Two days later, according to the complaint filed by the personal representative of Horvath's estate, the following occurred:

Gillespie began experiencing auditory hallucinations, and he said that the voices were "having sex, yelling at [him], [and] trying to make deals with [him]," which caused him to become aroused. Gillespie then began assaulting Horvath "by punching him in the head and face several times, delivering blows to the face with his foot and knee, stabbing him multiple times in the face with a pencil, and sodomizing him either pre- or post-mortem, causing serious injuries resulting in his death." Gillespie later told investigators that he got angry at Horvath whom he believed "was trying to be gay." Horvath was declared dead at 9:29 a.m. that morning.

According to the complaint, Wayne County jail officials were deliberately indifferent to Horvath's safety and security because they housed him with Gillespie, and they failed to protect Horvath from someone with a clear history of mental illness and assaultive behavior.

Gillespie was arrested for threatening a bus driver with a knife, and when screened at the jail he told medical staff he was bipolar and schizophrenic and that he had no taken his medication for six days. Upon further screening by mental health staff, Gillespie disclosed that he often heard voices that told him to do things and that he had not been taking his prescribed meds. It was recommended that Gillespie be housed in general population with no restriction on double bunking.

The lawsuit alleged deliberate indifference claims against several individual defendants. The appellate court found that given the facts that must be viewed in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party, Horvath was housed with and attacked by a prisoner who was recently arrested for a violent assault and had a history of serious mental illness, the complaint fulfilled the objective component required by case law and the district court properly denied summary judgment on that claim.

As for Wayne County's interlocutory appeal of the denial of their motion for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds, the Sixth Circuit said it had no jurisdiction over that issue. As a municipality, Wayne County "is not entitled to claim qualified immunity, and thus may not normally appeal the district court's denial of summary judgment as to it," the court wrote. Whether or not the county was liable for deliberate indifference "is an issue that is reviewable on appeal [only] after the district court renders a final judgment." See: Richko v. Wayne County, Michigan, et al., No. 15-1524 (6th Cir. 2016).

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Related legal case

Richko v. Wayne County, Michigan