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Sixth Circuit Denies Qualified Immunity for Failure to Protect Michigan Prisoner from Unsafe Working Conditions

by David M. Reutter

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held on August 24, 2021, that two Michigan prison employees were not entitled to qualified immunity in a lawsuit alleging they were deliberately indifferent to a prisoner’s safety.

The case involved an October 15, 2015, incident in which a 400-pound laundry cart fell on the prisoner, Kelly Jane Rhodes, who was on just her second day of work as a laundry porter at Woman’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility (WHVCF). The accounts of what occurred differ in some respects, but “everyone involved agrees that laundry-porter work is dangerous,” the Court noted.

Despite the danger, Rhodes had received only limited, on-the-job training. She spent her first day watching to see how other porters unloaded and loaded the laundry carts from the truck used to transport them. The second day, at the urging of two other porters, Rhodes stepped in to help unload the truck.

The process was supposed to work like this: The truck driver, guard Richard Jones, pushed a cart onto the truck’s lift gate, which had no stop, so he would ask if the porter had it before letting go, after which the porter would hold the cart in place as another guard, Paul McPherson, lowered the lift gate.

Jones admitted that he did not ask Rhodes if she had control of the cart before he let go of it. Prisoner Anthernett Thomas said that Jones was in a rush that day because he was running late and that he “flung” the cart at Rhodes without making sure that she had control of it as he usually did. She said the cart was moving too fast and already tilting when it reached Rhodes.

It was disputed whether McPherson had started lowering the gate when the cart tipped off the truck. Rhodes retained no memory of the incident. But Thomas and fellow prisoner Tabitha Parker said they saw the cart tipping and told Rhodes to step out of the way.

“Despite the instruction, and perhaps because she panicked, Rhodes moved forward instead of back and was struck by the cart, causing her head to strike against the concrete with the cart landing on her legs,” the Court noted, adding that she was “bleeding profusely from her nose and the left side of her head.”

As a result of the mishap, she suffered skull and facial fractures, brain injuries, internal bleeding, and further injuries to her face, scalp, and left side when a laundry cart fell onto her.

Rhodes settled her state tort claims for $50,000. She also filed suit in federal court on July 26, 2017, accusing the two guards and other prison officials of violating her Eighth Amendment guarantee of freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, based on the unsafe nature of her prison work environment, their failure to train her properly as a laundry porter, and their failure to protect her. In addition, she made a Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process claim alleging her injuries infringed on her right to bodily integrity and ran afoul of the state-created danger doctrine.

The defendants moved for summary judgment. Rhodes responded to that motion by dismissing all defendants except the two guards, Jones and McPherson. The district court then found the guards were entitled to qualified immunity and granted the summary judgment motion as to them. Rhodes appealed.

A three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit then took up the case, finding first that the testimony of Jones and McPherson confirmed that Rhodes’ work as a laundry porter entailed an objectively substantive risk of serious harm. So, the district court had properly concluded that Jones disregarded that risk. But it erred in not finding the same as to McPherson, for there was a dispute as to whether he lowered the lift gate too early and did so knowing Rhodes was not paying attention to the cart and did not have control of it.

The Court then took up the issue of qualified immunity and found it was clearly established that constitutional conditions of confinement apply to prison work conditions, with sufficient precedent in its sister circuits “to put a reasonable prison official on notice that their recklessly disregarding a known risk to a prison worker’s safety would not just be irresponsible, but would violate the person’s right to be free from ‘unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain’ under the Eighth Amendment.”

Thus, the district court’s order was reversed on the Eighth Amendment claim, but it was affirmed as to the Fourteenth Amendment claim, and the case remanded for further proceedings. See: Rhodes v. Michigan, 10 F.4th 665 (6th Cir. 2021).

The defendants then filed a petition with the Court for a rehearing en banc before the full Sixth Circuit, but that was denied on October 27, 2021. See: Rhodes v. State, 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 32269 (6th Cir.). 

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Rhodes v. Michigan

Rhodes v. State