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Seventh Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Juvenile Prisoners’ Civil Rights Case

by Derek Gilna

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed the dismissal of a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by two Iowa girls who alleged they were mistreated at the Wisconsin Girls State Training School at Copper Lake. After their placement in that out-of-state facility in 2015, they said they were subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.

The federal appellate court noted that the district court had prematurely dismissed plaintiffs Laera D. Reed and Paige Ray-Cluney’s claims against Charles Palmer, director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, based upon the defense of qualified immunity. 

While at the Copper Lake facility, their complaint stated, “staff subjected them to prolonged periods of ‘isolation,’ which involved spending about 22 out of 24 hours each day in a 7-foot-by-10-foot concrete cell furnished with only a metal cot and a thin mattress. They allege these isolation cells had urine stains on the floor and wall, and only one window ‘covered by a thick cage reducing light that [could] pass through.’” Further, they said they received little to no educational services, were often not released from solitary for meals and were subjected to several incidents of excessive force, including the use of mace; as a result, they both attempted suicide.

According to Reed and Ray-Cluney, between 2012 and 2016, the Girls State Training School “received criticism from multiple Wisconsin circuit court judges regarding its ‘sordid’ and ‘inhumane’ treatment of juveniles.”

Palmer moved to dismiss the complaint on qualified immunity grounds, whereby government officials are shielded from liability. According to the appellate opinion, “A state official is protected by qualified immunity unless the plaintiff shows: ‘(1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right and (2) that the right was “clearly established” at the time of the challenged conduct.’”

In explaining its October 9, 2018 ruling that reversed the dismissal of the complaint, the Court of Appeals wrote, “At this juncture, however, we are tied to plaintiffs’ well-pleaded allegations, which expressly allege that Palmer ‘knew or should have known of the systemic and excessive use of isolation cells.’ Of course, the above discussion does not preclude Palmer from securing qualified immunity later. It is entirely possible, for example, that plaintiffs did not endure the extent of isolation that they allege. It is equally feasible that such solitary confinement was ordered pursuant to a legitimate governmental objective, or that plaintiffs will be unable to marshal evidence to show that defendants’ actions substantially departed from accepted standards.” 

The case remains pending on remand. See: Reed v. Palmer, 906 F.3d 540 (7th Cir. 2018). 

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Related legal case

Reed v. Palmer