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Seventh Circuit: Non-Medical Prison Staff Entitled to Qualified Immunity

by Douglas Ankney

On August 1, 2019, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that non-medical correctional staff were entitled to qualified immunity in a lawsuit alleging they had failed to provide a medical accommodation to a prisoner that had neither been ordered by the medical department nor was obvious to a layperson.

In the spring of 2015, Jeffrey Leiser was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) while incarcerated in the mental health unit at the Stanley Correctional Institution in Wisconsin. Leiser told his psychiatrist that his symptoms were triggered whenever anyone stood closely behind him. The psychiatrist arranged for Leiser to receive his medication directly from the nurse rather than waiting in the med line. None of the medical staff informed the guards of Leiser’s diagnosis or of any needed accommodation.

In 2013, however, Leiser had told Sergeant Karen Kloth that he suffered from PTSD and asked her not to stand closely behind him. Kloth told Leiser he would just have to “deal with it.” She then began standing directly behind him every time she worked. Leiser complained to Kloth’s supervisors – Unit Manager Paula Stoudt and Warden Reed Richardson – about her behavior, but neither acted on his complaint.

In November 2015, Leiser filed suit against Kloth, Stoudt and Richardson under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The defendants moved for summary judgment on the grounds of qualified immunity; the district court denied their motion, and the defendants appealed.

The Seventh Circuit observed that qualified immunity is a doctrine that “protects government officials from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” [See: PLN, May 2018, p.48]. A right is clearly established whenever a plaintiff can “show either a reasonably analogous case that both articulated the right at issue and applied it to a factual circumstance similar to the one at hand or that the violation was so obvious that a reasonable person necessarily would have recognized it was a violation of the law.” Existing precedent must have placed the constitutional question beyond debate, the Court of Appeals added, citing Reichle v. Howards, 566 U.S. 658 (2012).

The Court determined there was no precedent requiring a prison guard to accommodate a mental health need based upon a prisoner telling the guard of the need without confirmation from medical staff, when the need for the accommodation was not obvious. Such a requirement could create a danger of prisoners manipulating guards for purposes unrelated to their mental health conditions; consequently, the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity.

The Seventh Circuit reversed the district court’s order and remanded with instructions to grant summary judgment in favor of the defendant prison officials. See: Leiser v. Kloth, 933 F.3d 696 (7th Cir. 2019), rehearing and rehearing en banc denied

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Related legal case

Leiser v. Kloth