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Seventh Circuit Grants Qualified Immunity to Illinois Jail Guards Who Relied on Nurse’s Opinion that Detainee Was “Faking” Symptoms Before He Died

by David M. Reutter

On December 15, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed denial of qualified immunity (QI) to Illinois jail guards who relied upon a nurse’s claim that a detainee was faking his medical condition, which then proved fatal. The estate of Michael Carter, Sr. argued that guards at the Macon County Jail should have known better and were deliberately indifferent to his medical needs. The federal court for the Central District of Illinois agreed. But the Court reversed that decision, concluding the guards were immune from liability.

Carter was booked into the jail on a warrant for attempted cocaine distribution on July 13, 2015. His intake form noted he had Type 2 diabetes and took insulin. The medical administration form listed prescription drugs Metformin and Glyburide that he also took to manage his disease.

Over the next few days, Carter intermittently received Metformin but no Glyburide. On July 16, 2015, he submitted a sick call request, complaining he was exhausted and vomiting. After his worried mother called the jail, he was finally checked and found to be experiencing tachycardia and low blood pressure. He was given anti-nausea medication and moved to a medical observation unit.

There he was seen by Dr. Robert Braco on July 17, 2015. But the doctor mistakenly believed Carter had been experiencing only respiratory symptoms. Dr. Braco gave Carter two medications for coughing, but he did nothing to address his diabetes.

On the morning of July 18, 2015, Nurse Jo Bates told guard Cpl. Randall West that Carter was ready to return to the jail population. When guard Larry Parsano arrived at Carter’s cell just after 9 a.m. to inform him of the move, Carter neither looked at him nor responded. Other guards arrived to assist, and video captured what unfolded next.

Carter sat near a shower, leaning against the wall and toilet. Nurse Bates remarked that Carter’s vitals were better than her own, so Carter must be “faking” an illness. She used smelling salts to determine whether he was playing possum, and Carter’s head moved slightly. Guard Joshua Page arrived. He knew Carter was diabetic and noted he appeared sick, with labored breathing. Nurse Bates insisted Carter was “faking.”

Cpl. West then appeared on the video, kicking Carter with varying degrees of force. He also stood on Carter’s hand while twisting his foot back and forth. Believing Carter was refusing to comply with orders, West ordered Carter moved to the disciplinary portion of the jail.

When Cpl. Michael Patton arrived with another guard, Terry Collins, Bates reiterated that Carter must be faking. She then tried unsuccessfully to secure a pulse oximeter on Carter’s finger. She left without a reading, never taking Carter’s vitals.

Parsano applied a pressure-point technique designed to get Carter to move, but the detainee never responded. He was placed in a wheelchair and taken to a segregation cell for uncooperative detainees – known as “deadlock” – because it was determined that he was refusing to comply with orders.

When Parsano went back to the medical cell to clean up, he discovered diabetic food trays. That prompted him to request that Bates administer a blood-glucose test. It exceeded the 500 mg. limit, but Bates did not appear concerned. She came back around 10:15 a.m. and gave Carter an insulin shot.

Another test was taken at 11:15 a.m., again producing an off-the-meter reading. This time, Cpl. Ronke Austin demanded action, for he was a diabetic who recognized the danger. Dr. Braco was called and said he would see Carter when he came in at 3 p.m., Austin demanded Carter be sent to a hospital immediately, saying he would be dead after such a delay. Nurse Bates relented. But when staff arrived at Carter’s cell, he had no pulse; resuscitation efforts failed, and Carter was declared dead upon arrival at a hospital.

His estate sued, and West, Parsano, Collins, Patton, and Page moved for summary judgment, asserting QI. The U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois denied the motion, concluding that a material factual dispute existed as to whether the guards had reason to know that medical staff was failing to provide adequate care. The guards appealed.

The Seventh Circuit, after first concluding it had jurisdiction, found the outcome was controlled by King v. Kramer, 680 F.3d 1013 (7th Cir. 2013), which “dictates that corrections officers are not constitutionally obligated to override judgment of medical professionals unless they have reason to know that an inmate is receiving inadequate treatment.” The key question was “whether Bates’s treatment was so obviously inadequate that every reasonable officer would have known that he could not rely on her medical judgment.”

“In hindsight,” the Court continued, “we know that Carter was experiencing symptoms of diabetic ketoacidosis. But like King, the lay [guards] lacked the requisite medical training to either identify or treat Carter’s medical condition,” the Court wrote, reversing the denial of QI to the guards. “Similarly, they ‘lacked the capacity to judge whether (Nurse Bates) made an appropriate diagnosis.’”

The Court reiterated that its opinion concerns only the five transporting guards, so the case remains active on “a host of state and constitutional claims” against the Macon County Sheriff’s Office, DeCatur Memorial Hospital, Dr. Braco and Nurse Bates. PLN will update developments as they are available. The estate is represented by the Law Office of Rahsaan A. Gordon in Chicago. See: McGee v. Parsano, 55 F.4th 563 (7th Cir. 2022).

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Related legal case

McGee v. Parsano