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

Sixth Circuit Revives Claim Over Michigan Prisoner’s Fatal Overdose on Allegedly Smuggled Fentanyl

by David M. Reutter

On August 10, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed a district court’s grant of summary judgment to employees of the Michigan Department of Corrections (DOC) in a case accusing them of failing to protect a prisoner who suffered a fatal overdose of smuggled drugs. The Court held that unfettered access to drugs in a prison is sufficiently serious to satisfy the objective prong of an Eighth Amendment claim.

Seth Michael Zakora, 21, died of a fentanyl overdose in his cell at Lakeland Correctional Facility (LCF) on January 22, 2017. A prisoner allegedly told a guard – either Steven Johnson or Chadwick Mobley – to check on Zakora just before his death because something was wrong with him. But neither did so. By the time Zakora was finally found, rigor mortis had set in.

In the two days before he died, two other LCF prisoners overdosed. But no immediate investigation was undertaken. After Zakora’s death, the Michigan State Police (MSP) brought a drug detection dog into LCF. Its alert gave positive indication of contraband in Zakora’s unit.

On behalf of Zakora’s estate, his mother, Brandy Zakora-Haeck, filed suit in federal court for the Western District of Michigan in 2019, alleging that his fatal overdose was the result of a longstanding drug-smuggling problem in LCF and other DOC prisons. The suit claimed that an unidentified LCF guard who was romantically involved with another prisoner was smuggling drugs into the lockup, hiding the dope in basketballs thrown over the prison’s fence. It was further alleged that DOC and MSP officials had been informed of the scheme, but they had been unable to ascertain a perpetrator. In fact, the prisoner who tipped them off was subsequently charged with and convicted of smuggling drugs into LCF – allegedly to avoid an internal investigation into the corrupt “Jane Doe” guard.

The complaint named nine former and current DOC employees plus four MSP employees. Each filed motions to dismiss or for summary judgment. The estate countered with a motion to file a second amended complaint. That request was denied, and the district court also dismissed the deliberate indifference claim against the MSP defendants, granting them summary judgment on the remaining claims due to their lack of involvement in Zakora’s death. As to the DOC defendants, the district court also dismissed some claims and granted summary judgment on the rest. The estate appealed.

The Sixth Circuit began with Count I, which alleged a failure to protect Zakora from a serious risk of harm due to the prevalence of drugs at LCF. The Court said that the complaint failed to specify how any MSP defendants were aware of a drug smuggling operation or the prevalence of drugs at LCF. There was also nothing in the record to show MSP was responsible for rooting drugs out of LCF, unless it was made aware of a reason to investigate. Thus, summary judgment to the MSP defendants was affirmed.

As to the DOC defendants and Count I, however, the Court noted that prisoners “are about 12 times more likely to exhibit drug dependence or misuse than the general population.” Additionally, “[i]solation and sheer boredom further complicate prisoners’ efforts to resist drugs within prison walls,” the Court added. Citing federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Court also noted that from “2001 to 2018, the number of people who died of drug or alcohol intoxication in state prisons increased by 600%.”

“Whether harm to a prisoner is from environmental factors such as second-hand smoke … or from an actual assault by another inmate … the point is that prisoners may not be knowingly exposed to a sufficiently serious risk of harm,” the Court wrote. “Here, failing to investigate the presence of drugs after the first two overdoses in Zakora’s C-Unit raises the inference that the risk to inmate health from those drugs was ‘sufficiently serious’ [to show that Zakora was] incarcerated under conditions posing a substantial risk of serious harm.”

To be sure, the Court allowed, a prisoner “who suffers a drug overdose will not automatically lose a failure-to-protect claim simply because he voluntarily ingested the drugs.” That sort of claim is cognizable only “if the inmate alleges, and ultimately establishes, that he was at serious risk of injury from the presence of drugs before the injury occurred.” But Zakora’s estate met that burden at the pleading stage.

“We emphasize that simple exposure to drugs, without more, does not violate contemporary standards of decency and thus does not satisfy the objective prong” of an Eighth Amendment Claim, the Court continued. “Prison officials are not required to show that they prevented all drugs from entering their facility in order to be protected from liability.”

But the Court also found that the DOC defendants allegedly had knowledge of a smuggling scheme and that a risk of serious harm existed. It further found the estate met the subjective prong because it alleged that after the first two overdoses the DOC defendants should have taken immediate measures and removed the drugs from the unit. So claims against those defendants were reinstated.

The Sixth Circuit also found a valid claim for supervisory liability stated against LCF Warden Bonita Hoffner and Steven Rivard, DOC’s Assistant Deputy Director, but not DOC Director Heidi Washington. The complaint not only alleged that Bonita and Richard failed to train the Jane Doe guard and other employees to keep drugs from entering DOC prisons but also that they “failed to adequately supervise their subordinates by acquiescing in the subordinates’ failure to take any remedial action to address the drug problem.”

While the district court erred in finding no deliberate indifference claim stated as to Mobley and Johnson, the Court nonetheless found summary judgment proper for them because it was not shown they had any knowledge that Zakora had consumed drugs. Thus the district court’s order was affirmed in part and reversed in part. See: Zakora v. Chrisman (In re Est. of Zakora), 44 F.4th 452 (6th Cir. 2022). A request for rehearing before the full Sixth Circuit en banc was denied on October 3, 2022. See: Estate of Zakora v. Chrisman, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 27635 (6th Cir.).

The case has now returned to the district court, where Plaintiff continues to be represented by attorneys from Johnson Law, PLC, in Detroit. PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Est. of Zakora v. Chrisman, USDC (W.D. Mich.), Case No. 1:19-cv-01016.

Additional source: Detroit Free Press

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