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Fifth Circuit Reverses Denial of Qualified Immunity to Prison Officials

by Ed Lyon 

On September 9, 2019, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a Louisiana district court’s denial of qualified immunity to three of four defendants in a prisoner’s civil rights suit.

State prisoner Clarence Jason was on the recreation yard when another prisoner he had argued with found an unattended sling blade, picked it up and struck Jason on the back of his head, causing a concussion. No staff members saw the assault. Lt. Shane Ladner was walking a yard patrol when he saw a pool of Jason’s blood on the ground by the broken sling blade. He radioed his findings and other guards located the assailant. 

Sling blades are hand-held weed-cutting tools with long wooden handles and hooked steel blades instead of a flat blade. They are issued to yard workers who are supposed to surrender their I.D. cards as collateral, per prison policy. 

Jason sued Ladner as the supervising lieutenant, Sergeant Master Bradley Pierce as the tool issuing authority, Warden Robert Tanner and Louisiana DOC Secretary James LeBlanc. The first two defendants were alleged to be deliberately indifferent toward Jason’s safety, and the second two for failing to adequately train Lt. Ladner and Sgt. Pierce. 

The district court granted qualified immunity to LeBlanc. There was a material dispute concerning the amount of training and basic knowledge of the tool policy on Warden Tanner’s part, so he was denied immunity. Since the inherent danger of issuing a potentially dangerous tool to prisoners was so obvious that a reasonable person should have known of it, coupled with their failure to maintain a “direct line of sight” on prisoners using the sling blades, qualified immunity was denied to Ladner and Pierce. 

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit first determined de novo review was proper, then set forth a two-prong test: “(1) whether the official[s] violated a right; and (2) whether that right was clearly established.” The defendants had to be aware of facts from which an inference of a substantial risk of harm could be drawn, and they had to drew that inference. The appellate court explained, “The Eighth Amendment does not outlaw cruel and unusual ‘conditions;’ it outlaws cruel and unusual ‘punishments.’” 

The Court of Appeals found that Ladner and Pierce did their jobs per the then-existing prison protocol. They kept track of the sling blades, then kept watch on the prisoners as they walked foot patrol, making “their rounds.” The Court wrote, “in this case, the prison’s protocol wasn’t enough to keep Jason safe.” While there was a risk that prisoners could use the tools to attack other prisoners, “[a] substantial risk requires more.”

As for Warden Tanner, the Fifth Circuit held “it wasn’t the lack of training that caused the risk to Jason. Rather, it was the sufficiency of the overall protocol ... here, it’s not so much about insufficient training. Instead it’s about insufficient protocol.” 

The district court’s denial of qualified immunity to the three defendants was reversed, and on remand the court denied Jason’s motion for appointment of counsel. See: Jason v. Tanner, 938 F.3d 191 (5th Cir 2019). 

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Related legal case

Jason v. Tanner