Second Circuit Strips Qualified Immunity from Connecticut Officials Who Ignored Prisoner’s Scalp Lesions
by David M. Reutter
Observing that “Eighth Amendment claims for the deprivation of medical care are not analyzed body-part by body-part,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled on July 14, 2023, that a lower court erred in dismissing a Connecticut prisoner’s claim he was for years denied adequate medical care for painful infections and lesions on his scalp.
Anthony T. Collymore brought the appeal after the federal court for the District of Connecticut dismissed his claim sua sponte, prior to service on the defendants and without leave to amend, finding officials at the state Department of Corrections (DOC) and MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution (MWCI) were entitled to qualified immunity (QI) because no Supreme Court or circuit decision had previously held “that a scalp condition constitutes a serious medical condition,” the Second Circuit recalled.
That pro se complaint detailed Collymore’s efforts between 2014 and 2020 to receive adequate treatment for the scalp lesions. Taking up his appeal, the Court noted its “reluctance” to dismiss prisoner petitions at early stages is attributed, in part, to their “limited knowledge and [the] resources available” to help them “articulate potentially valid claims in legally cognizable language.” Early dismissal also often results in “the waste of judicial resources that results when remand for fact development proves necessary.” Moreover, “[s]ua sponte dismissal of pro se prisoner petitions which contain non-frivolous claims without requiring service upon respondents or granting leave to amend is disfavored by this Court,” as held in Benitez v. Wolff, 907 F.2d 1293 (2nd Cir. 1990).
As to the merits of the claim, the district court rested its QI analysis on the objective component of the deliberate indifference standard: whether Collymore’s medical needs were “sufficiently serious.” But the Second Circuit rejected that “body-part by body-part” analysis, examining instead whether Collymore plausibly alleged a condition that produces severe and unmanaged pain, as held in Hathaway v. Coughlin, 37 F.3d 63 (2d Cir. 1994).
“The absence of precedents involving scalp infection does not mean that Collymore cannot plausibly allege ‘chronic and substantial pain’ that is ‘important and worthy of comment and treatment,’ and which ‘significantly affects daily activities,’” the Court said. In his complaint, the prisoner said the “scalp condition causes him ‘intolerable’ pain that felt like his ‘scalp was on fire.’” Furthermore, he “has repeatedly become infected and required antibiotics” to treat “scabs that oozed puss.” In daily life he suffered loss of sleep and painful keloid scarring, which “has proven to be both degenerative and resistant to treatment for years.”
“The right to be free from such a condition is clearly established,” the Court declared, finding error in the district court’s dismissal. It also found error in not allowing Collymore to amend his complaint as to the administrative defendants. Thus the district court order was reversed with instructions to allow amendment of the claims against the administrative defendants and proceed on the Eighth Amendment claims concerning his scalp condition. See: Collymore v. Myers, 74 F.4th 22 (2d Cir. 2023).
Back at the district court, Collymore filed an amended complaint on September 11, 2023, once more proceeding pro se. The district court screened the complaint and dismissed all claims—including those for retaliation and denial of access to courts—except claims against former DOC Commissioner Rollin Cook, MWCI Warden Robert Martin and Health Services Administrator Rikel Lightner, plus several named medical staffers. The case remains open, and PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Collymore v. Martin, USDC (D. Conn.), Case No. 3:21-cv-00303.
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Related legal cases
Collymore v. Martin
|USDC (D. Conn.), Case No. 3:21-cv-00303
Collymore v. Myers
|74 F.4th 22 (2d Cir. 2023)
|Court of Appeals