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Seventh Circuit Reverses Dismissal in Prison Gang Assault Case

by Ed Lyon 

Illinois prisoner Kirk Horshaw paid an extremely high price for placing his trust in prison officials. He received a written note warning that he was going to be beaten because a prison gang leader felt he had not shown him the proper respect. Horshaw passed the letter (his only copy) to prison guard Mark Casper, who promised to investigate but did nothing. Horshaw said he then sent a note to Menard Correctional Center warden Michael Atchison, who also did nothing. Horshaw was later severely assaulted by several gang members in October 2012, barely surviving the brutal attack, and continues to suffer from head trauma. 

He filed suit in federal court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, naming Casper and Atchison as defendants and claiming they failed to protect him under the U.S. Supreme Court’s precedent in Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994). 

The district court dismissed the suit on a summary judgment motion, holding with respect to Casper, who claimed not to have received the threat letter from Horshaw, that such a letter did not by itself “establish a specific or substantial threat.” Atchison prevailed by simply denying receipt of Horshaw’s note seeking help from prison staff. 

The Seventh Circuit began its December 14, 2018 decision by noting the specificity of the threat to Horshaw demanded by the district court went beyond the requirements of Farmer, making liability impossible. Likening the situation to the plot in Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced, the appellate court noted that unlike that novel, “prisoners do not threaten each other with the level of detail the [district] judge demanded.” The Court of Appeals went on to find that the letter-writing tipster may have had to omit many details, either to protect his position in the gang or because the time and place of the assault had not yet been decided. 

Whether Horshaw had actually sent a note to Atchison, which was possibly not received, or whether Casper had received the threat letter despite his denial, were questions of fact for the jury to decide and not the district court. Under Farmer and Seventh Circuit precedent, the appellate court held the law in this situation was not uncertain but the facts were. Did the defendants receive Horshaw’s notes, and what did the notes say? Could the defendants have kept him safe had they tried? If those answers were yes, then neither defendant would be entitled to the qualified immunity the district court found they enjoyed. 

Accordingly, the lower court’s judgment was vacated and the case remanded for trial, where it remains pending. See: Horshaw v. Casper, 910 F.3d 1027 (7th Cir. 2018). 

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Horshaw v. Casper


 

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