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Violation of State Regulation Not a Constitutional Violation

by David Reutter

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal district court's summary judgment granted in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 lawsuit. The suit was brought by the Simpson estate, against Sheriff Mark E. Gorbett and Deputies Lehman, Williams, York Tindell, and Harbaugh in their official and individual capacities. The suit alleged deliberate indifference resulted in the death of Dennis Simpson, a prisoner.

Simpson had been convicted of drunk driving and sentenced to serve three weekends in jail. When he reported to serve his second weekend, he registered a 0.23% blood alcohol content. He spend 13 hours in a holding cell until he was believed to be sober. He was then placed in a regular cell. Despite the fact that he weighed 368 pounds, he was placed on a top bunk because no bottom bunks were available. He later went into seizure-like convulsions, fell from his bunk, and died from head injuries.

The estate sued defendants because they failed to provide adequate medical care, constitutional condition of confinement, and adequate training. Deputies Lehman and Williams were dismissed from the suit because they were not involved, and that dismissal was not appealed.

The estate appealed two issues to the Seventh Circuit. The circuit upheld the summary judgment on claims of unconstitutional conditions of confinement because even if institutional policy prohibited placing a 350 pound prisoner on a top bunk, precedent law already clarified that such policy is a state department regulation and not a constitutional violation.

The court also held that while placing a 350 pound prisoner on a 30 inch wide top bunk may be uncomfortable, the evidence does not show any substantial risk to health and safety. There was no evidence of any other obese man falling from a top bunk and being severely injured. Absent showing a deliberate disregard for a known risk, the claim was dismissed.

The Seventh Circuit also held that the state presented a "free-standing" medical treatment claim that it could not discern without indication of what care was owed, but not given. The record on appeal did address Simpson's obesity. Simpson was admittedly obese, but there was no indication of what care could have been provided. If it was argued that Simpson should have been placed on a bottom bunk, then the issue was already dismissed under conditions of confinement. No other obesity suit is clear from the complaint.

The estate also addressed Simpson's intoxication and alcoholism. The Seventh Circuit held that the defendants were not indifferent to the risk of Simpson being intoxicated. The record shows him being placed in a holding cell until he was believed to be sober, and stated that he was not suffering withdrawal.

There was also no indication that the defendants knew Simpson was an alcoholic and subject to withdrawal symptoms even hours and days after being sober. Absent evidence that the defendants knew of this risk and disregarded the risk, no finding of deliberate indifference existed. The district court's summary judgment order was affirmed.

See: Simpson v. Gorbett, No. 16-2899, F. 3d (7th Cir. 2017).


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Related legal case

Simpson v. Gorbett