Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Fourth Circuit Refuses to Reinstate Suit by NC Jail Detainee Alleging Denial of Access to Grievance System and Timely Medical Care Prisoner Didn’t Ask the Court to Extend Kingsley Protections

by Keith Sanders

The U.S. Supreme Court lowered the bar for a pre-trial detainee to sustain a civil rights claim over an alleged use of excessive force in Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 576 U.S. 389 (2015), saying it is necessary to show only that the alleged injury was objectively unreasonable, not that jail officials also had subjective knowledge of a specific risk to the detainee. But the high court did not say whether this single-prong approach also applied to a detainee’s claims relating to conditions of confinement or medical care.

As reported elsewhere in this issue, federal appellate courts for the Second, Sixth, Seventh and Ninth Circuits have decided that it does, while the Fifth, Eighth, Tenth and Eleventh Circuits have explicitly said it doesn’t. [See: PLN, Apr. 2022, p.56.] On December 2, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit could have decided the question too, except the detainee bringing the appeal didn’t ask it to do so. Instead he sought—and failed—to hold officials at a North Carolina jail liable for violating his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights under the same two-prong test established for a convicted prisoner’s Eighth Amendment claims in Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994).

The events underlying the case began on March 4, 2018, just under a month after Eric Wayne Moss was detained in the Madison County Jail, when jail officials searched the cell he shared with a man suspected of stealing a jail food tray. After they found a weapon, despite Moss’ objections that it wasn’t his, Guard Sgt. Frances Denton placed him on lockdown for 30 days, a period that eventually stretched to June 7 of that year. Jail officials claimed to have a disciplinary report from the incident signed by Moss, admitting responsibility and waiving the right to a hearing, but Moss objected strenuously that he had done neither.

He then filed suit under 42 U.S.C. §1983 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina on April 25, 2018, accusing Sheriff Buddy Harwood, Cpt. Tom Banks and Sgt. Denton of violating his Fourteenth Amendment due-process rights by denying access to the jail grievance system and withholding medication during his extended stay in lockdown.

The district court dismissed Moss’s claim regarding the grievance system, saying the record showed he had accessed the system through a jail kiosk during that time to file grievances about the missed medication. Thus he had failed to exhaust his claims as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996, 42 U.S.C. § 1997(e) (PLRA).

The lower court also dismissed Moss’ claim that his medication—for a thyroid condition, ADHD, and PTSD—was delayed by jail officials’ deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs, saying he failed to show they were anything more than negligent, which is insufficient to support a civil rights claim. On September 9, 2019, it granted Defendants’ motion for summary judgment. See: Moss v. Harwood, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 152732 (W.D.N.C.).

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision. Noting that Moss had given his kiosk PIN number during his lockdown to other prisoners to file medical complaints on his behalf, the Court said he also could have filed grievances about the allegedly denied hearing, meaning his claim failed to satisfy the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement.

As to his claim for lack of medical attention, the Court agreed with the lower court’s analysis. As a pretrial detainee, Moss could not file an Eighth Amendment claim, only one under the Fourteenth Amendment. But Moss himself argued that the two-prong approach established under the Eighth Amendment in the Brennan decision applied, and that Defendants had the subjective knowledge of a specific risk to him which that approach requires because they had received his requests for medication.

The district court said those requests were insufficient to warn jail officials that their actions “would expose Moss to a substantial risk of harm but chose to disregard that risk,” as required under Brennan. On appeal, the Court agreed.

“Because Moss has expressly endorsed application of the Eighth Amendment standard—including its subjective component—to his Fourteenth Amendment claim, we have no occasion to consider that question today,” it said. Instead it noted that “we traditionally apply Eighth Amendment deliberate indifference precedents to such claims,” meaning the plaintiff “must establish both an objective and a subjective component of deliberate indifference.” Lacking that finding, the Court affirmed the grant to Defendants of summary judgment and the dismissal of Plaintiff’s Fourteenth Amendment claims.

Moss was represented by attorneys Sarah Keller and Sierra Weingartner of the Wake Forest University School of Law, with the assistance of Michael A. Ingersoll of Womble Bond Dickinson LLP in Charlotte. See: Moss v. Harwood, 19 F.4th 614 (4th Cir. 2021). 

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Moss v. Harwood