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Ninth Circuit Rejects Lawsuit by California Prisoners Over Exposure to Valley Fever

by Chad Marks

On February 1, 2019, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of lawsuits filed by current and former California prisoners who alleged that state prison officials had violated their Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment by exposing them to a known heightened risk of contracting valley fever – a dangerous infection spread by fungal spores, also known as coccidioidomycosis.

In 2005, California prison officials began noticing a “significant increase” in the number of prisoners contracting valley fever in the San Joaquin area. In response, the court-appointed federal Receiver over prison medical care asked the California Department of Health Services to investigate the outbreak at Pleasant Valley State Prison – the facility with the highest infection rate. That investigation showed the infection rate was 38 times higher than in the nearby town and 600 times higher than in the surrounding county. It also revealed the rate of African Americans contracting the disease was higher than for other racial groups; prisoners with compromised immune systems were at greater risk, too. [See: PLN, Aug. 2016, p.56; June 2015, p.46; July 2013, p.28; June 2008, p.22].

In response, a statewide exclusion policy was implemented in 2007. Prisoners who were most susceptible to valley fever would be moved from facilities in the Central Valley or not housed at those prisons in the first place. According to the lawsuits, filed by over 100 current and former state prisoners, that policy was too little too late and did not do enough to protect the prisoners at risk of contracting the disease.

More than 100 state prisoners were infected, developed serious symptoms and now require lifetime medical care. Just over 40 prisoners died after being exposed to valley fever.

In affirming the dismissal of the claims in four consolidated cases, the Ninth Circuit found that prison officials could have reasonably concluded that the threat to prisoners from the disease was not that grave, because valley fever occurs throughout California’s Central Valley and elsewhere.

“Even though Valley Fever is more common in prisons, it is important to remember that it is not unique to prisons. More than a million people freely live in the Central Valley, and many of them contract Valley Fever each year. Nor is the disease confined to the Central Valley. It occurs throughout the southwestern United States and is especially common in Arizona,” the Court of Appeals wrote.

Further, some of the defendants had not been directly involved in the violations alleged in the lawsuits, while others were “entitled to qualified immunity against claims that they were deliberately indifferent to a substantial risk of serious harm in violation of the Eighth Amendment. They are also entitled to qualified immunity against claims that they racially discriminated against African-American inmates.”

 Judge Andrew J. Klienfeld said the appellate panel was sympathetic to the prisoners’ plight with respect to their exposure to a “serious and potentially fatal disease”; however, “it would not have been ‘obvious’ to any reasonable official that they had to segregate prisoners by race or do more than the federal Receiver told them to do.”

That seems counterintuitive. When prison officials were aware of a serious risk of valley fever infections since 2005, resulting in over 40 deaths, more should have been done to control the spread of the disease. The prisoners had no other options; they were completely dependant on prison officials to ensure their safety.

Following the adverse Ninth Circuit ruling and the denial of a motion for rehearing, the prisoners, represented by attorney Benjamin Pavone, filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court, which remains pending. See: Hines v. Youseff, 914 F.3d 1218 (9th Cir. 2019), rehearing en banc denied, cert. petition filed.  


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Related legal case

Hines v. Youseff