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Fifth Circuit Reinstates Denial of Medical Care Suit Against Texas County Jail

by Matt Clarke

On June 15, 2017, in an unpublished ruling, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a lawsuit brought by a former jail prisoner alleging he was denied adequate medical care at the Nueces County jail in Corpus Christi, Texas.

When Adam A. Balle was arrested by two police officers following a domestic dispute, he was already suffering from diabetes and a back disability. While escorting the handcuffed Balle to the police car, one of the officers kicked him twice in the middle of the back. He fell to the ground while experiencing sharp back pain.

Police took him to the Corpus Christi Detention Center, where he was held for several hours without medical attention before being transported to the Nueces County jail. During the six days he was held at the jail, Balle experienced excruciating pain and paralysis of his legs. He lost control of his bodily functions, causing him to “soil himself.” Despite repeated requests for medical care, his condition was either ignored or inadequately addressed, with medical personnel “checking and clearing” him.

Balle was finally transported to a hospital where he was diagnosed with back injuries and underwent surgery. He reportedly remains unable to walk.

A few days prior to the expiration of the two-year statute of limitations, Balle filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Corpus Christi, the police officers who arrested him, Nueces County, and 20 John and Jane Doe defendants. The city and police officers agreed to settle the claims.

After expiration of the statute of limitations, Balle amended his suit to identify two of the Jane Does as jail medical employees Deborah Charette and Chelsea Johnson. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (FRCP) 12(b)(6), arguing the statute of limitations had run and Balle had inadequately pleaded his municipal liability claim.

The district court granted the motion and dismissed the suit. Balle appealed.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the amendment to name Charette and Johnson was untimely and did not relate back to the original complaint under FRCP 15(c)(1). Further, equitable tolling did not apply because Balle had waited until the statute of limitations had almost expired to file his lawsuit. Had he filed it earlier, but been unable to obtain the defendants’ names because they resisted discovery, equitable tolling might have applied; however, since his tardiness was of his own making, it did not.

The appellate court held that Balle had adequately pleaded a municipal liability claim: He detailed repeated denials of his requests for medical care, from which an unwritten policy or widespread practice of denying prisoners adequate medical treatment could be inferred. He also alleged that the jail’s “consistently slow and ineffective medical care” violated the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, 37 Tex. Admin. Code § 273.2. Therefore, the dismissal of Nueces County as a defendant was in error.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of claims against Charette and Johnson but reversed the dismissal of claims against Nueces County, returning the case to the district court for further proceedings. See: Balle v. Nueces County, 690 Fed.Appx. 847 (5th Cir. 2017).

Following remand, on December 4, 2017, Nueces County filed a third-party complaint against Naphcare, Inc., the private contractor that provides medical care at the county jail. The case remains pending. 

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Related legal case

Balle v. Nueces County