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Three-day Denial of Pain Medication Sufficient to Overcome Claim of Qualified Immunity, Eighth Circuit Rules

by Lonnie Burton

On June 30, 2016, the Eighth Circuit affirmed a district court’s order granting qualified immunity to jail officials in a case where a prisoner was repeatedly denied pain medication during his three-day stay at a county lock-up.

Patrick Dadd was arrested in Anoka County, Minnesota on the evening of March 29, 2014 and taken to the local jail. The day before, he had undergone dental surgery where his jaw was cut open and teeth extracted. Following the surgery, Dadd was given a prescription for Vicodin, which he filled and began taking immediately.

When he was arrested and jailed, Dadd informed both the arresting officers and jail staff that he was recovering from dental surgery and was on Vicodin. The arresting officers delivered the Vicodin to jail staff, and during the booking process Dadd told Deputy Kempenich that he was in severe pain and needed his medication. But Kempenich indicated on a medical form that Dadd did not have any dental problems; he wrote “N/A” in response to whether Dadd needed to be referred to a nurse.

Over the next three days, Dadd repeatedly begged everyone he encountered to give him his medication, as he was in severe pain. His pleas went completely ignored. It got so bad that Dadd was unable to sleep, and had to put wet toilet paper on his gums to get any relief from the pain. He was unable to eat or chew during his three days in jail.

On March 31, 2014, Dadd was released from jail and his Vicodin returned to him. When he complained to staff about the suffering he had experienced, one of the deputies told him that “jail was not supposed to be comfortable.”

Soon after his release, Dadd sued several jail guards and a nurse under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs. The defendants moved for dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) on the grounds of qualified immunity. In short, the issue was whether Dadd’s three days of suffering rose to the level of a constitutional violation and whether the defendants had advance notice that their conduct violated his rights.

The district court denied the motion, and the Eighth Circuit affirmed. “The deputies’ decision to ignore Dadd’s complaints were not based on a ‘medical judgment,’ but rather indifference,” the Court of Appeals held. “Dadd has plausibly stated a claim for a violation of his rights to adequate medical care on the basis of deliberate indifference.”

The appellate court went on to find that the law was “clearly established” at the time of the violation, thus defeating the county’s claim of qualified immunity.

“When an official denies a person treatment that has been ordered or medication that has been prescribed, constitutional liability may follow,” the Eighth Circuit wrote. “The defendant had fair warning about the unconstitutionality of a failure to provide pain medication for serious dental conditions in particular.”

 The Court of Appeals concluded there was simply no precedent for the argument that a delay in treatment that does not last for weeks or months fails to state a claim for relief, noting that in another case a court had found a two-day delay in treatment that resulted in greater pain was sufficient to impose liability.

Dadd had also sought sanctions against the defendants for filing a frivolous appeal. “We rely on precedent in determining that Dadd stated a claim for relief, yet we conclude that the defendants made a more-than-frivolous, if ultimately unpersuasive, argument that they would not have known Dadd’s rights were clearly violated during his short time in jail. We therefore decline to impose sanctions under Fed. R. App. P. 38,” the appellate court stated. 

The Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order and the case remains pending on remand. See: Dadd v. Anoka County, 827 F.3d 749 (8th Cir. 2016). 

Related legal case

Dadd v. Anoka County