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New Mexico Court Denies Motion to Dismiss Lawsuit Over Policy of Denying Transport to Medical Appointments During Lockdowns

by Matt Clarke

On December 7, 2018, a New Mexico federal district court denied a warden’s motion to dismiss a claim that his policy of denying transportation to off-site medical appointments during prison lockdowns delayed a prisoner’s medical treatment, resulting in serious injury.

Todd Jager was incarcerated at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility when he was attacked by another prisoner and sustained severe facial injuries. X-rays taken at a hospital revealed separated facial bones. A CT scan showed a “quadripod fracture of the left orbit with severe associated deformity,” other significant fractures and a displaced cheekbone. The private medical care provider at the prison, Centurion Correctional Healthcare of New Mexico, was aware that surgery was necessary but waited another 10 days to schedule a surgical consult. By then, six weeks had passed since the assault. 

The consult was listed as non-urgent and wasn’t scheduled for another eight weeks. An ophthalmologist required another CT scan that took 10 more days. Finally, Jager was seen by a surgical specialist 26 weeks after he was attacked. He was told that bones fuse within four to six weeks and his had healed incorrectly due to the delay, resulting in permanent injuries that included a visible facial deformity. His only treatment options were to insert a facial implant or rebreak the bones and reset them. Either option carried a risk of “blindness, drastic head and facial scarring, pain and a long healing period.” 

Jager filed a federal civil rights action against multiple defendants, including the prison’s warden, James Mulheron. He alleged that Mulheron promulgated and enforced a policy that prohibited prisoners from being transported to off-site medical appointments during lockdowns, which caused him to miss appointments and greatly delayed his medical care. In response, Mulheron filed a motion to dismiss. 

The district court held that Jager had met the objective component for the deliberate indifference standard, which applies to claims for denial of medical care. His injuries were obvious, even to a lay person. He suffered substantial harm due to the delays in his treatment, leaving him with few options, all of which carried potentially severe complications. His numerous requests for medical care were ignored and he did not receive a surgical consult until 26 weeks after his injury.

Turning to the subjective component for deliberate indifference claims, Mulheron argued that Jager never alleged the prison’s policies precluded all transports to medical appointments, regardless of need. The court, however, found that was exactly what Jager claimed. Further, his allegations must be taken as true when deciding a motion to dismiss. Jager had sufficiently alleged deliberate indifference even if Mulheron was, as he asserted, unaware “that the delay in getting a CT-scan would cause ‘a substantial risk of serious harm.’”

The district court held the risk to prisoners’ health caused by a policy of denying them transportation to medical appointments was obvious. Further, Jager’s right to medical care was clearly established, as was the fact that delaying a prisoner’s access to necessary medical treatment constituted deliberate indifference. Thus, Mulheron was not entitled to qualified immunity. The motion to dismiss was denied and the case remains pending with a jury trial scheduled in February 2020. See: Jager v. Mulheron, U.S.D.C. (D. NM), Case No. 2:18-cv-00743-GBW-CG; 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 206718. 

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Related legal case

Jager v. Mulheron