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Tenth Circuit Holds Jail Guard May be Liable for Prisoner-on-Prisoner Assault

On November 14, 2016, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the denial of qualified immunity to a Colorado jail guard who failed to protect a prisoner from being assaulted.

James Durkee was incarcerated at the Summit County Detention Center when he was attacked by fellow prisoner Ricky Michael Ray Ramos. Ramos had a history of aggressive behavior against guards and other prisoners; he had previously threatened Durkee, and Durkee had notified jail officials of the threats. They had even noted that Ramos and Durkee “cannot attend any programs together or even be in the hallways or [booking] passing.” Jail staff, including Sgt. Ron Hochmuth, were made aware of this and initialed the notice.

Nonetheless, when Ramos was being escorted back from court, Hochmuth unshackled him in the booking area beside the attorney visitation room at the same time that Durkee was visiting with his lawyer.

Due to a large observation window in the room, Ramos and Durkee could see each other. When Sgt. Hochmuth told Ramos to proceed to his cell, he instead ran into the attorney visitation room and assaulted Durkee.

With the assistance of Denver attorneys Andrew McNulty and David A. Lane, Durkee filed a federal civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Hochmuth and Summit County Sheriff John Minor, alleging their failure to prevent the assault was cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity which was denied. They then appealed.

Holding that Durkee had not produced evidence of personal involvement, an inadequate policy or failure to train jail staff, the Tenth Circuit reversed the denial of qualified immunity as to Sheriff Minor, dismissing him from the suit.

The appellate court noted that Hochmuth admitted knowing there was a substantial risk of Durkee being attacked should he encounter Ramos. His defense rested solely on his assertion that he did not see Durkee in the attorney visitation room. However, his knowledge of the risk and the fact that both Durkee and Ramos were visible to each other were sufficient evidence to allow a jury to find Hochmuth had actual knowledge of the risk and disregarded it. Therefore, summary judgment was inappropriate with respect to Hochmuth.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the denial of summary judgment as to Hochmuth and reversed with respect to Minor. See: Durkee v. Minor, 841 F.3d 872 (10th Cir. 2016). Following remand the case went to a jury trial in June 2017, which resulted in a mistrial. 

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