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Eighth Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Iowa Prisoner’s ADA Claim

Newton Correctional Facility (NCF) former prisoner Michael T. Rinehart had been diagnosed with diverticulitis, a chronic colon condition that causes diarrhea and constipation.

While he was treated for the condition, he suffers severe flare-ups that make immediate use of a toilet a medical necessity. As a result, Rinehart was moved to a unit with in-cell toilets.

NCF has a multi-level privilege system that rewards prisoners for good behavior. Since 2001, Rinehart had level-five status, which was the highest level at the time, but he went to level-six in late 2017. It included privileges of extended visiting hours, yard time after the evening meal, ability to choose a cell and cellmate, ability to purchase certain canteen items and late night privileges.

In 2016, prisoners at that level-five status moved to Unit E, which does not provide a toilet in each cell. That situation prevented Rinehart from making the move, so he requested a medical exception to stay in his cell and maintain his level-five privileges. Prison officials denied the request, and Rinehart lost his level-five privileges. As the denial was considered a “classification decision,” it was not reviewable through the grievance procedure, so he filed an ADA grievance.

In late 2017, Rinehart was offered a cell in Unit E near the unit’s public toilets. Given the realities of his condition during a flare-up, Rinehart rejected the offer. A prison doctor in January 2018 issued notice that Rinehart required housing in a “room with a toilet available due to medical issue.”

In February, Rinehart again requested and was denied a medical exception to maintain his level-six privileges. When Rinehart’s wife contacted Doug Bolton of the Iowa Department of Corrections about Rinehart’s requests, he responded that he was having Rinehart’s medical restriction removed. That occurred without a medical review.

Rinehart, acting pro se, filed a complaint in federal court in August 2018. He alleged an ADA violation because the defendants denied him privileges he would have otherwise been entitled to absent his diverticulitis. He also alleged the prison retaliated against him for filing ADA grievances by revoking his medical classification. The district court screened the complaint and dismissed it for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

The Eighth Circuit reversed. It found Rinehart sufficiently alleged an ADA violation. The ADA defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual.” A “major life activity also includes the operation of a major bodily function,” including “digestive” functions.

The defendants argued Rinehart’s condition is not a disability because even “if his condition is severe, it is rare.” The court, however, said the ADA requires it to view an “impairment that is episodic” as “a disability if it would limit a major life activity when active.” Rinehart appealed and was appointed counsel.

The Eighth Circuit’s July 2, 2020, order found that Rinehart alleged a disability under the ADA, and he also sufficiently alleged that he was denied the benefit of the prison’s privilege system by reason of his disability. It noted that when Rinehart twice-requested medical exceptions, the defendants asked him to “choose between retaining his privileges or having a bathroom in his cell.” Thus, an ADA claim was stated.

Related legal case

Rinehart v. Weitzell