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Eighth Circuit Affirms Denial of Summary Judgment in Failure to Protect Case

In a December 28, 2018 decision, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the denial of summary judgment in a lawsuit brought by a prisoner who claimed prison officials violated his rights by failing to protect him from three separate attacks by other prisoners. The failure-to-protect claim was based on insufficient staffing levels at Arkansas’ Varner Unit.

Prison officials appealed after the district court adopted a magistrate’s report and recommendation that all claims but those that sought monetary relief in the defendants’ official capacities had material facts in dispute, precluding summary judgment.

The case was brought by prisoner Tim Axelson, who alleged he was assaulted on three occasions by different prisoners between February 7, 2013 and March 4, 2013.

He filed grievances after the first two attacks, claiming there was “a general lack of security at the Varner Unit” and that prisoners “cannot be safe with one guard watching 200 inmates.” His request for protective custody status was denied at a classification review hearing. Four days after he was placed in general population, Axelson was attacked a third time.

He then filed a complaint with the Arkansas Claims Commission concerning the second attack. The Commission awarded him $1,000. The district court held that outcome did not bar Axelson from filing a civil rights action for the same attack. It also found the “parties agree that there is a history of physical altercations at the Varner Unit.”

However, they disputed whether there was adequate staff at the facility. Prison officials pointed out that the Varner Unit was accredited by the American Correctional Association. 

Axelson responded that the fact the prison was properly staffed during an inspection did not prove there was adequate staff at the times relevant to the complaint, nor reflect normal staffing levels at the prison. 

The district court pointed to prisoner affidavits supporting Axelson’s argument, and guard Telicia Mothershed admitted the facility was understaffed at the time of the second attack.

As there was a factual dispute as to whether the Varner Unit was adequately staffed, the court held the failure-to-protect claim could proceed and the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity. 

The Eighth Circuit affirmed, stating the district court had properly relied on prisoner affidavits to make its ruling. 

“Because there are factual disputes about the adequacy of staffing levels at the Varner Unit at the times Mr. Axelson was attacked, the Defendants have not demonstrated that they are entitled to summary judgment on the issue of whether or not the Defendants failed to protect Mr. Axelson from the attacks on February 10 and March 4, 2013,” the Court of Appeals wrote.

The case remains pending on remand, where Axelson’s motion for appointment of counsel was granted. See: Axelson v. Watson, 746 Fed. Appx. 600 (8th Cir. 2018). 

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Related legal case

Axelson v. Watson