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Fifth Circuit Affirms Denial of Qualified Immunity to Texas Jailers Who Refused Medical Care to Detainee Dying of Drug Overdose

by Matt Clarke

On June 1, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld a district court’s denial of qualified immunity (QI) to staff in a Texas jail who allegedly ignored the medical needs of a prisoner for 32 hours while he “moaned in pain, twitched, thrashed, convulsed, hallucinated, vomited multiple times (throwing up a dark black liquid and part of a plastic bag), and repeatedly cried out for help” as he died of a drug overdose.

On January 28, 2019, Emergency Medical Services (EMS) took Steven Mitchell Qualls, 28, “a known drug abuser,” to a hospital in Jasper for “chest pains, agitation, and tachycardia,” the Court later recalled. Five hours later, he was discharged, but he refused to sign discharge papers or leave. Jasper Police Sgt. Toderick D. Griffin and Officer Sterling Ramon Linebaugh arrived and arrested Qualls for public intoxication.

After booking him into the Jasper City Jail, Linebaugh tried to ask questions to complete the booking process. An obviously intoxicated Qualls either ignored the questions, mumbled incoherently, or said “no.” So they placed him in the jail’s detox cell.

There Qualls got worse. He started calling out to jail staff, often incomprehensibly, but multiple times clearly asking for help, medical attention, or to be taken to a hospital. He vomited “a dark black liquid” about ten hours after arriving at the jail. He smeared the liquid around the floor and rubbed his face in it before lying on the floor in the vomit.

When Dispatcher Heather Rene O’Dell and police officers arrived to clean him and his cell, Qualls was unable to respond to O’Dell’s instruction to “roll over.” He screamed in pain when he was lifted. O’Dell then asked if she needed to call EMS, but Griffin allegedly told her not to. O’Dell asked what to do if Qualls vomited again, and “Linebaugh told her to just ‘let him,’ and laughed that he didn’t want to ‘hold [Qualls’s] hair,’” according to the complaint later filed.

Three hours later, Qualls vomited more black liquid and ended up on the floor face-down in it. Again, he screamed in pain when the police officers moved him. This time, they “noticed ‘a small tied-off piece of a bag’ — the kind used to hold illegal narcotics — ‘on the floor covered in Qualls’s vomit.’” Four hours later, Qualls vomited a third time. Five hours after that, he was dead. An autopsy report blamed the death on an accidental overdose of amphetamines.

Represented by Dallas attorney Thomas Dean Malone, Qualls’s mother, Frances Earline Sims, filed a civil rights lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal court for the Eastern District of Texas, accusing Griffin, Linebaugh, and O’Dell of deliberate indifference to her son’s serious medical needs, in violation of his Eighth Amendment guarantee of protection from cruel and unusual punishment. Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing they were entitled to QI. The district court denied that motion on June 9, 2021. See: Sims v. City of Jasper, 543 F. Supp. 3d 428 (E.D. Tex. 2021). Defendants then filed an interlocutory appeal.

The Fifth Circuit began by conducting a “circumscribed” review to determine whether factual issues identified by the district court in denying summary judgment were material — though not whether they were genuine. The district court had found a reasonable jury could conclude Defendants knew Qualls was a drug user who was intoxicated, swallowed a bag of drugs, got worse while at the jail, vomited black liquid multiple times, and then screamed for help and asked to go to a hospital. Further, they sought no medical care despite the fact it was obvious that his injuries were severe. These were clearly material issues, the Court said.

Moreover, the alleged facts were similar to those in another case, Easter v. Powell, 467 F.3d 459 (5th Cir. 2009), in which the Court had found a violation of a prisoner’s Eighth Amendment rights when officials “refused to treat him, ignored his complaints, intentionally treated him incorrectly, or engaged in any similar conduct that would clearly evince a wanton disregard for any serious medical needs.”

With this, the law “clearly established Qualls’s rights before the officers allegedly violated them,” the Court concluded. “Perhaps the jury will discount Sims’s evidence,” the Court continued. “Perhaps not.” But Defendants could not claim QI, so the district court’s judgment was affirmed. See: Sims v. Griffin, 35 F.4th 945 (5th Cir. 2022).

A petition to rehear the appeal before the entire Fifth Circuit en banc was denied on July 29, 2022. See: Sims v. Griffin, USCA (5th Cir.), Case No. 21-40457 (2022).

The case has now returned to the district court, and PLN will report developments as they are available. See: Sims v. City of Jasper, USDC (E.D. Tex. 2021), Case No. 1:20-cv-00124. 

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