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Deference to Prison Officials Jury Instruction Improper in Medical Care Case

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion in a prisoner’s civil rights action that made significant holdings in regards to jury instructions. First, it held that when a pro se litigant fails to object to a jury instruction, the instruction receives an ordinary standard of review. It further held that in actions alleging inadequate medical care, the deference to prison officials instruction should not be given.

Prisoner Michael Chess sued eight members of the medical staff at California’s High Desert State Prison, alleging they violated the Eighth Amendment by denying him methadone based solely on prison policy and providing him medication they knew would harm his liver. The jury returned a verdict for defendants on both claims.

On appeal, Chess challenged an instruction that read in pertinent part, “In determining whether the defendant’s violated plaintiff’s rights as alleged, you should give deference to prison officials in the adoption and execution of policies and practices that in their judgment are needed to preserve discipline and to maintain internal security.”

The Ninth Circuit noted the Magistrate Judge articulated the instruction was problematic and knew the specific reasons why. It held it would “not punish a pro se litigant with plain error rather than de novo review simply because he failed to say the words ‘I object’ when the trial judge and defendants knew the instruction might be erroneous and what the objection would have been.

Turning to the instruction, the Court found no Supreme Court precedence applying the deference standard in a medical care case. More importantly, security considerations are not usually present in such cases, so “where the parties do not put into issue a security-based policy, the deference instruction has no ‘foundation in the evidence’ and should not be given.

Medical treatment, not in the court’s view, “is quite a different currency” than cases dealing with conditions of confinement, for “decisions about medical care and policy are not ordinarily made in haste or under stress, unlike many decisions about the use of force or restrictive confinement.”

There may be outlier cases, but the court held “that a trial judge may instruct a jury to defer to a policy or practice adopted and implemented by prison officials only when that policy or practice addresses bona fide safety and security concerns, and when there is evidence that the challenged medical decision was made pursuant to that security-based policy or practice.

As such, giving the instruction in this case was error. It was, however, held to be harmless error, for the evidence at trial showed the decisions about Chess’s medical treatment were not based on the policy, but upon what the care providers believed were best to treat his conditions. As there was no evidence to the contrary, the jury’s verdict would have been the same and the judgment was affirmed. See: Chess v. Dovey, 790 F.3d 961 (9th Cir. 2015).


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Related legal case

Chess v. Dovey