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Fourth Circuit: Failure to Transfer Mentally Ill Prisoner to Hospital Not Actionable

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a district court’s denial of qualified immunity to a defendant in a civil rights action related to the August 19, 2015 death of Jamycheal Mitchell at Virginia’s Hampton Roads Regional Jail.

As repeatedly reported in PLN, Mitchell, 24, died due to “wasting syndrome” or severe malnutrition after losing around 36 pounds while incarcerated. He had been arrested on misdemeanor charges for stealing several snacks and a drink from a 7-Eleven store, which cost $5.05. [See: PLN, July 2018, p.44; Feb. 2017, p.24; Jan. 2017, p.44; Feb. 2016, p.63].

Although the trial court found that Mitchell – who had a history of mental illness and displayed “agitated behavior, elevated and irritable mood, and delusions” – required a mental competency evaluation, he was not sent to a mental health facility but remained at the jail.

The lawsuit over Mitchell’s death alleged the clerk of court did not notify Eastern State Hospital for two months about the court’s competency evaluation order. The person responsible for processing that order “put the fax (with the order) in her desk drawer and took no further action.” As a result, Mitchell’s name did not go on a waiting list for beds at Eastern State.

Months after Mitchell’s death, the Office of State Inspector General reported the hospital almost never operated at capacity, and that statewide there were more empty beds available at mental health facilities than prisoners awaiting beds.

Fifty defendants were named in the lawsuit. At issue on appeal was the district court’s denial of a motion to dismiss filed by Debra K. Ferguson, Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health & Development Services – the agency responsible for overseeing state mental hospitals. The complaint alleged that she “had a statutory duty ... to transfer Mitchell and other incompetent individuals to appropriate hospitals to provide them restorative inpatient health care.”

In Mitchell’s case, Ferguson failed to comply with the competency order. She moved to dismiss the suit based on sovereign immunity and qualified immunity, and argued the complaint had failed to state a claim against her. The district court denied the motion and Ferguson appealed.

In a March 6, 2018 decision, the Fourth Circuit wrote it was “not blind to the fact that many prison systems offer inadequate mental health care. But we are unaware of any clearly established law (or indeed, any law at all) holding that prisons are, or as a general rule, unfit to house mentally ill inmates. Instead, inmates regularly challenge, and judges regularly address, the provision of prison mental health services on a system-by-system, facility-by-facility, and prisoner-by-prisoner basis.”

The appellate court agreed with a Tenth Circuit ruling, Blackmon v. Sutton, 734 F.3d 1237 (10th Cir. 2013), that held placing a prisoner in jail while denying a transfer to a mental hospital does not per se violate the Constitution. While the Court of Appeals found that Ferguson was not entitled to Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity because she had been sued in her individual capacity, she was entitled to qualified immunity.

“No clearly established law dictates that housing mentally ill inmates in prisons, rather than transferring them to state mental health facilities, ‘automatically and alone amount[s] to an “objectively excessive risk” to [inmate] health and safety,’” the Fourth Circuit wrote. Accordingly, the district court’s order was affirmed as to the denial of sovereign immunity, reversed as to qualified immunity and remanded for further proceedings. See: Adams v. Ferguson, 884 F.3d 219 (4th Cir. 2018). 

Additional source: Washington Post

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Related legal case

Adams v. Ferguson