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Fifth Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Texas Prisoner’s Failure-to-Protect Suit

by Matt Clarke

On May 5, 2021, the Fifth Circuit court of appeals reversed the dismissal of a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by a Texas state prisoner who alleged an assistant warden failed to protect him from an attack by a prisoner who had previously threatened him.

According to court documents, Joaquin Alvarez was incarcerated at the Hughes Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) when he began complaining to guards that “a sexually violent predator inmate” on his cell block was threatening him. The guards required that he identify the prisoner who made the threats by name “in view of several dozen inmates” which “gained [him]… a reputation as a ‘snitch’… at the Hughes facility” and “create[d] an obvious danger from prison gangs.” Because of the threats, Alvarez requested a transfer to another cellblock or even another prison.

A committee chaired by Assistant Warden Chimdi A. Akwitti held a hearing on the transfer request. According to Alvarez, during the hearing Akwitti told him he was “nothing but a snitch” who was “attempting to manipulate the committee.” Akwitti then denied the request. Akwitti also allegedly said, “We don’t protect snitches in Hughes Unit.”

A month later, the prisoner who had threatened Alvarez attacked him. Alvarez filed a pro se federal lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging Akwitti failed to protect him from a known danger of assault and that “due to security lapses, the inmate who was threatening him was able to access his cell in the middle of the night without supervision.”

Before Akwitti could file an answer, the district court dismissed the complaint under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. Alvarez appealed.

The Fifth Circuit noted that, although Alvarez’s complaint did not specifically state that he had communicated to Akwitti about the dangers of being labeled a “snitch,” Akwitti’s use of that word during the committee hearing indicated that he may have already known about it. The court held that, although the district court was correct in dismissing Alvarez’s official capacity claim against Akwitti for money damages as being barred by the Eleventh Amendment, it erred in dismissing the personal capacity claim at this stage of the proceedings.

“As Alvarez points out on appeal, the district court did not consider whether Alvarez had stated a valid Eighth Amendment claim by alleging that Akwitti deliberately exposed him to an excessive risk of harm by refusing his transfer request, despite the fact that Alvarez was already known by other inmates as a ‘snitch’ due to the behavior of the prison guards and that Akwitti, just three days later, presided over a hearing concerning these events.” Because Alvarez is entitled to have his allegations addressed by the district court in the first instance, the judgment of the district court was reversed and the case remanded for the district court to do so. See: Alvarez v. Akwitti, 997 F.3d 211 (5th Cir. 2021). 

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Related legal case

Alvarez v. Akwitti