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

Eighth Circuit Grants Qualified Immunity to Minnesota Jailers and Medical Provider Who Misdiagnosed Prisoner’s Leukemia as Gingivitis

by Harold Hempstead

On April 12, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit said a Minnesota jail detainee was not subjected to unconstitutional treatment by jailers and their contract medical providers who misdiagnosed his leukemia as gingivitis.

When Kyle Rusness arrived at the Becker County Jail (BCJ) on January 17, 2015, he carried an antibiotic prescribed for infections in his leg and mouth. He soon complained about severe mouth pain, nose and mouth bleeding, vomiting, dizziness, leg and arm numbness, blurred vision and headaches. He saw one of two nurses from Sunnyside Care Center (Sunnyside) who were on-site at BCJ two to three days a week. He also saw a local doctor, who “diagnosed him with gingivitis and a skin infection and prescribed him another antibiotic…and an oral rinse,” as the Court later recalled.

By January 23, 2015, Rusness was convicted of a probation violation and sentence to a term at BCJ. On February 2, 2015, he was transported to an emergency room at a local hospital, and subsequently diagnosed with anemia and acute myeloid leukemia. “His leukemia went into remission in March 2018,” the Court recounted, but Rusness continued “to suffer from…clouding in his peripheral vision and post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Rusness filed suit in federal court for the District of Minnesota, amending his complaint in September 2019 to name defendants Becker County and its officials, as well as Sunnyside nurse Teresa Ullmer. He alleged (1) deliberate indifference to his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights; (2) a pattern or practice that amounted to deliberate indifference, which would defeat the government’s sovereign immunity as laid out in Monell v. Dept of Soc. Servs. Of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978); as well as (3) a negligence claim against Becker County and several defendants.

“Rusness settled his claims against…Ullmer on October 21, 2020,” the Court recalled. Then on January 7, 2021, the district court granted summary judgement to the remaining  defendants, holding “that they were entitled to qualified immunity on the deliberate indifference claim and that Rusness had failed to present sufficient evidence of negligence and of failure to train or supervise.” Rusness appealed.

The Eighth Circuit said that the “question is whether Rusness manifested signs of a serious medical need that would be sufficiently obvious to jail staff without medical training,” as laid out in Jones v. Minn. Dep’t of Corr., 512 F.3d 478 (8th Cir. 2008). In that case, the prisoner died, yet the Court held that her symptoms were not “so obvious that a layperson would have easily recognized the need for medical treatment.” And what symptoms were those? Jones “was unable to stand or walk under her own power, was ‘google-eyed’ and unresponsive, …  was rolling on the ground while grunting and groaning, [had dried blood and cuts on her lips], smelled as if she had urinated on herself, and was breathing at a very rapid rate.”

Rusness’ symptoms paled in comparison to that, of course. So he wasn’t able to defeat defendants’ claim of qualified immunity, either. That got the county off the hook, too. Thus the district court’s judgment was affirmed. Rusness was represented by attorney Oliver E Nelson III of the Magna Law Firm in Minneapolis. See: Rusness v. Becker Cty., 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 22540 (D. Minn.).

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