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Seventh Circuit Grudgingly Affirms Summary Judgment in Illinois’ Prisoner’s Suicide Lawsuit

But Highlights Negligence of DOC and Wexford Health Staff

by Dale Chappell

Hinting that “another area of law” may provide relief, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on August 9, 2021, affirmed summary judgment of a lawsuit filed against the Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC) and its for-profit health contractor, Wexford Health Sources, in the suicide of an Illinois prisoners on their watch.

The Court acknowledged that the case painted a “sad picture” of the way Travis Fredrickson was treated in the Illinois prison system leading up to his suicide. Yet all of the errors and mishaps could not amount to a constitutional violation to support a federal lawsuit, so the Court reluctantly agreed with the district court’s dismissal of the suit.

It was no secret that Fredrickson struggled with suicidal thoughts. He’d tried to kill himself numerous times in prison and had been on suicide watch, or “crisis watch,” many times during his incarceration. But in a series of disciplinary transfers to other prisons, Fredrickson fell through the cracks. “Sloppy” was how the Court described prison staff’s conduct that led to Fredrickson’s death.

It also noted that he had been misled by staff when they told him he could stay at the prison where he was getting help if he came clean about a small metal object found in a borrowed pair of boots that they said was a “cuff key.” He told them what they wanted to hear and was promptly shipped to a disciplinary prison, Pinckneyville Correctional Center. That’s where Fredrickson committed suicide.

The problem with the lawsuit filed on behalf of Fredrickson by his mother, Brenda Quinn, was that in order to show an Eighth Amendment violation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, there had to be more than just negligence by staff. The claim of staff’s “deliberate indifference” to Fredrickson’s mental health needs and the failure of the continuity of his care during the transfers were based on alleged facts that the Court said simply did not rise to that level.

In Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994), the U.S. Supreme Court held that “a prison official cannot be found liable under the Eighth Amendment for denying an inmate humane conditions of confinement unless the official knows of and disregards an excessive risk to inmate health or safety.” Instead the Court held that the official “must both be aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and he must also draw the inference.”

Applying that standard, the Seventh Circuit noted two components to the deliberate indifference analysis: An objective and a subjective component, each with a separate analysis. Finding the objective component was undisputed here, the Court addressed the subjective component and said that for “that part of her case, Quinn must present evidence that would permit a trier of fact to find that the individual defendant in question (1) subjectively knew the prisoner was at substantial risk of death by suicide and (2) intentionally disregarded the risk.”

“It is not enough to show that prison officials should have been aware of the risk,” the Court said.

With the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, the burden shifted onto Quinn to prove the Eighth Amendment violations. In effect, the prison in its defense filed a motion for judgment in its favor, arguing that there was no genuine dispute of “any material fact” that the court could grant in Quinn’s favor due to her failure to meet the rigid Eighth Amendment standard of cruel and unusual punishment set forth in Farmer. Unfortunately, the Court agreed, she couldn’t meet this high bar, so summary judgment for defendants was proper.

“The fact that Quinn was not able to put together a case that, if believed by a trier of fact [i.e., a jury], would have shown an Eighth Amendment violation against one or more of the defendants in no way minimizes her personal loss,” the Court said. “But if there is a legal theory here, it must lie in another area of law”—presumably state tort law and negligence claims.

“Mental health is notoriously difficult to assess and treat, and unfortunately the relevant staff did not appreciate how dire Fredrickson’s crisis was,” the Court concluded. So Quinn had not “pointed to sufficient evidence on which a reasonable jury could tie either individual defendants ... to Fredrickson’s death,” the Court said. See: Quinn v. Wexford Health Sources, Inc., 8 F.4th 557 (7th Cir. 2021). 

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Related legal case

Quinn v. Wexford Health Sources, Inc.