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Federal Court Allows Lawsuit to Move Forward Where Prisoners Ordered to Clean Bloody Cell After Suicide

by Chad Marks

Jeffrey Patel was a prisoner at the Theo Lacy Jail in Orange County, California, when another prisoner commited suicide with a razor blade. Prison staff ordered Patel and three other prisoners to clean up the cell, which was a “bloody mess,” according to court documents. Prison staff failed to provide the prisoners with adequate protective gear for the cleanup.

Patel and another prisoner, Clifford, brought suit alleging Eighth Amendment violations for (1) dangerous working conditions, (2) inadequate medical care, (3) intentional infliction of emotional distress, and (4) negligence.

According to the suit, the plaintiffs alleged the cell was a horrific site, where blood was on the walls, floor, and ceiling of the lower bunk. The mattress also was saturated with blood. The four prisoners were only given a mop, rags, and a liquid agent to clean the cell. The prisoners also allege that while cleaning the bloody mess that blood splattered on them.

Patel and Clifford named Orange County Sheriff Hutchens, Captain Park, Technician Marquez, and Deputy Gutierrez as defendants. The defendants moved to dismiss all of the claims.

As to Sheriff Hutchens and Captain Park, the Court found that the complaint stated adequate claims against the two. The Court relied in part on Watkins v. Oakland, 145 F.3d 1087, (9th Cir. 1998), “A supervisor can be liable in his individual capacity for his culpable action or in action in the training, supervision, or control of his subordinates; for his callous indifference to the rights of others.” The Court, also relying on Crowley v. Bannister, 734 F.3d 967 (9th Cir.2013), found that supervisory liability also may exist “if supervisory officials implement a policy so deficient that the policy 'itself is a repudiation of constitutional rights' and is 'the moving force of a constitutional violation.'"

The Court next turned to the question of qualified immunity. To determine whether or not an officer is entitled to qualified immunity, the court has to ask: (1) whether an official violated a constitutional right and (2) whether the constitutional right was clearly established. C.B. v. City of Sonora, 769 F.3d 1005 (9th Cir. 2014). The Eight Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment protects prisoners from inhumane conditions of confinement. Morgan v. Morgenesen, 465 F.3d 1041 (9th Cir. 2006). The United States Supreme Court has made this principle clear in Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994).

In light of these principles, it is clear that a prisoner’s labor not only constitutes a condition of confinement, but that prison officials supervising the prisoners also have a constitutional duty to take reasonable measures to guarantee the prisoner's safety. The petitioners argued that the defendants forced them to clean up the blood and, by failing to provide them with adequate protective gear, they were deliberately indifferent to their safety.

The Court found that the plaintiffs adequately stated a claim under the Eighth Amendment for dangerous work conditions and failure to provide them with adequate medical care. The failure to provide adequate medical care related to the defendants' failing to provide the prisoners with post-exposure care, including vaccinations for hepatitis B and mental health counseling after their exposure to the blood.

The Court went even further, finding that there was an Eight Amendment claim against Orange County typically referred to as a Monell claim. “Monell established that municipalities can be liable for infringement of constitutional rights, under certain circumstances.” Horton by Horton v. City of Santa Maria, 915 F.3d 592 (9th Cir. 2019). In this case, the plaintiffs alleged that Orange County has a policy or custom of using prisoners for cleanup tasks at Theo Lacy, including the cleaning of blood and other biohazardous materials. They also alleged that it is the policy or custom of Orange County not to provide prisoners with training, adequate protection, or post-exposure care for the cleanup of blood and other biohazardous materials.

Accordingly, the Court granted the prisoners' motions in part and consistent with this opinion. See: Jeffrey Patel et al v. County of Orange,  et al., Case No. 8:17-cv-01954-JLS-DFM, 2019  


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Related legal case

Jeffrey Patel et al. v. County of Orange, et al.