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Sixth Circuit Holds Subjective Prong of Deliberate Indifference Test Inapplicable to Pretrial Detainee’s Claims; Reinstates Lawsuit

by Matt Clarke

On September 22, 2021, in a case with enormous impact on the way jails may treat pretrial detainees, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit decided that jail official do not need to have subjective knowledge of a serious risk to a detainee, and so long as they reasonably should be expected to know about the risk they may be held liable for any resulting injury.

Ruling that the subjective prong of the “deliberate indifference” test laid out in Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994), does not apply to claims by pretrial detainees, the Court reversed a judgment-as-a-matter-of-law issued by a district court against a woman who claimed officials were deliberately indifferent to her serious medical needs at the Tennessee jail where she was detained.

That woman, Tammy Brawner, arrived at the Scott County Jail on June 29, 2016, when she was screened by a booking officer and recorded a list of her current prescription medications that included three controlled substances: suboxone; clonazepam; and gabapentin. Her treatment with them was interrupted, however, by two jail polices, one that prohibited the administration of controlled substances prior to an intake medical examination and another that allowed delaying such an examination for up to two weeks.

Caught in that Catch-22, along with possible paperwork snafus and staff errors, Brawner then went eight days without receiving her medications or any other treatment. When she began having seizures, she was taken to a hospital, but the hospital was not informed that she had been denied her medications and misdiagnosed her with epilepsy.

Back at the jail, Brawner continued to suffer seizures. A licensed social worker correctly determined that she was suffering from drug withdrawal, but this was ignored by medical staff. Over a nine-day period, she suffered more seizures, resulting in prolonged hospitalization and permanent debilitating injuries.

Brawner then filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, accusing the county of deliberate indifference to her serious medical needs. After she presented her case, the district court granted Defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law, finding that Brawner had met the objective prong of the deliberate indifference test set forth in Farmer. But it said she had failed to meet the subjective prong by showing that jail staff were aware of a substantial risk of serious harm to her.

Aided by Knoxville attorney Richard E. Collins, II, of Stanley, Kurtz & Collins, Brawner appealed to the Sixth Circuit, which held that the facts in evidence, when viewed in a light most favorable to Plaintiff, support a finding of deliberate indifference under both the objective and subjective prongs of the deliberate indifference test. Because it is important on remand, though, the Court addressed the proper standard for a pretrial detainee’s claims of deliberate indifference.

In doing so, the Court noted that the Supreme Court’s decision in Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 576 U.S. 389 (2015), applied only the objective standard to a pretrial detainee’s excessive use-of-force claim, not the subjective standard that makes up the second prong of the Farmer test. That is because pretrial detainees have a different status than convicted prisoners under the constitution.

According to Kingsley, the Court continued, a prison or jail official can violate a pretrial detainee’s Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process rights without meting out severe punishment or any punishment at all, unlike a convicted prisoner, whose protection is provided under the Eighth Amendment and requires a finding of punishment that is both cruel and unusual.

This means, the Court said, that a pretrial detainee’s rights under the Due Process Clause “can be violated when an official does not have subjective awareness that the official’s acts (or omissions) have subjected the pretrial detainee to a subjective risk of harm.”

Thus Kingsley requires modification of the subjective prong of the deliberate indifference test, the Court found, holding that it is sufficient to prove that an official acted deliberately or recklessly in failing to mitigate a serious medical risk which should have been known to a reasonable official. Since Brawner’s treating physician testified that abruptly discontinuing her prescribed medications was known to cause seizures, she had satisfied the test and her claims should be allowed to proceed to trial.

Defendants countered that the Court was reversing its prior case law. But the Court said this is what must be done when the Supreme Court sets a new standard, as it did in Kingsley. In fact, it noted that the Second, Seventh and Ninth Circuits have already held that Kingsley requires modification of the subjective prong for pretrial detainee’s claims, while the Fifth, Eighth, Tenth and Eleventh Circuits continue to apply both prongs of the Farmer test.

Judge Chad A. Readler, who agreed with his two colleagues in the majority that Brawner’s claims met both prongs of the Farmer test, nevertheless dissented from their view that Kingsley compels the Court to modify that test for pre-trial detainees.

With that the district court’s judgement was reversed and the case was remanded to the district court to try Brawner’s claims based on the two jail policies before a jury. See: Brawner v. Scott Cty., 14 F.4th 585 (6th Cir. 2021).

A petition to rehear the case en banc failed to gain the support of a majority of the judges on the Sixth Circuit, so it was denied on December 1, 2021. Additional representation was provided for Brawner by attorneys Caitlin C. Burchette and Arthur F. Knight III of the Knoxville firm of Taylor & Knight. See: Brawner v. Scott Cty., 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 35492 (6th Cir.). 

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Related legal case

Brawner v. Scott Cty.