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Seventh Circuit Allows Prisoner’s Eighth Amendment Claim to Proceed

by Christopher Zoukis

The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has reversed a district court’s ruling that a former prisoner’s Eighth Amendment claim of cruel and unusual punishment could not go forward. The appellate court did, however, uphold the dismissal of a First Amendment claim.

Seyon R. Haywood accused a prison teacher of attacking him while he was incarcerated at the Shawnee Correctional Center in Illinois. He was charged with making a false statement and ended up in segregation for two months; he also lost one month of good-time credits.

While in segregation, Haywood claimed that he suffered freezing conditions due to a broken window in his cell and the failure of the prison’s power system during a winter storm. He complained, but no one fixed the window and he was refused extra clothes or blankets.

Haywood sued the warden, Jody Hathaway, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and claimed the disciplinary charge had violated his right to free speech. Applying precedent, the Seventh Circuit held his damages claim could not proceed because the disciplinary conviction had not been overturned. “Heck [v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994)] and Edwards [v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641 (1997)] hold that a § 1983 claim does not accrue until the conviction or discipline had been set aside,” the appellate court wrote.

However, the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of Haywood’s Eighth Amendment claim related to the freezing conditions in his segregation cell. The defendants argued that the Supreme Court’s decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009) [PLN, July 2009, p.18] preempted any personal responsibility of the warden, as it held that “organizational heads and other supervisors are not vicariously liable for their subordinates’ misdeeds.”

The appellate court disagreed, instead finding that Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994) [PLN, July 1994, p.1] supplied the appropriate legal standard. According to Farmer, if a plaintiff shows that he was “incarcerated under conditions posing a substantial risk of serious harm,” and that “the official knows of and disregards an excessive risk to inmate health or safety,” then a viable Eighth Amendment claim has been presented.

As Haywood alleged that his conditions of confinement – the freezing cold – were substantially harmful and the warden knew about those conditions but chose to do nothing about them, that claim survived summary judgment.

Accordingly, the case was remanded for further proceedings on Haywood’s Eighth Amendment claim, with one circuit judge issuing a dissenting opinion. The case remains pending on remand. See: Haywood v. Hathaway, 842 F.3d 1026 (7th Cir. 2016). 

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