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Eighth Circuit Rejects Qualified Immunity on Inadequate Nutrition Claim

On June 13, 2016, the Eighth Circuit affirmed a district court’s denial of qualified immunity to several defendants on a civilly-committed sex offender’s inadequate nutrition claim.

Thomas Ingrassia was civilly committed to the Missouri Sexual Offender Rehabilitation and Treatment Services (SORTS) facility. He escaped in 2001 and was reapprehended in 2003. [See: PLN, June 2002, p.30].

After serving a prison term for the escape, Ingrassia was returned to SORTS in August 2008 and placed on Total Ward Restriction, which prohibited him from eating in the dining room. The order remained in effect until March 15, 2009.

SORTS staff put Ingrassia on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. However, he often received only 1,200 calories. For unknown reasons, SORTS staff began giving Ingrassia two 300-calorie meal-replacement drinks instead of a regular meal tray; he smashed the drinks in protest, and staff put him on a no-liquids diet.

Shortly after the food restrictions began in August 2009, Ingrassia weighed 165 pounds. Three months later he weighed just 151 pounds.

Ingrassia filed suit, alleging that SORTS staff had denied him adequate nutrition in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The defendants moved for summary judgment and asserted a qualified immunity defense, which was denied by the district court.

The Eighth Circuit affirmed, concluding “there is ample evidence from which a jury – crediting Ingrassia’s evidence – could find that he proved a constitutional violation.” The appellate court found that “(1) he lost 11 pounds in less than two months (and 14 pounds in three months), (2) his bag lunches often lacked items as punishment for behavior violations, (3) at times he received only 1,200 calories per day instead of the recommended 2,000 and (4) food – including oatmeal and mashed potatoes – was improperly withheld under the ‘no liquids’ order.” That evidence demonstrated a violation of his right to adequate nutrition.

“While there are contested issues of fact about Ingrassia’s weight loss and caloric intake,” the Court of Appeals held that “his evidence established a significant weight loss tied to nutrition.”

The Court reversed the denial of qualified immunity to two defendants who did not have “knowledge of Ingrassia’s weight loss nor the authority to change his meal plans.” However, the district court properly denied summary judgment to three other defendants, including a dietician, the Eighth Circuit ruled. See: Ingrassia v. Schafer, 825 F.3d 891 (8th Cir. 2016).

Following remand, the case went to a jury trial in September 2016, and judgment was entered for the defendants. Ingrassia appealed and on December 28, 2016 the Eighth Circuit entered an order granting his motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis, and for the trial transcript to be prepared at the government’s cost. The appellate court certified that the appeal was not frivolous and “may present a substantial question.” The case remains pending. 

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Related legal case

Ingrassia v. Schafer