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Eighth Circuit Remands ADA Claims—But Not Constitutional Claims—of Paralyzed Arkansas Jail Detainee

by David M. Reutter

On August 15, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed dismissal of a paraplegic Arkansas jail detainee’s deliberate indifference and conditions of confinement claims, while reviving claims under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. ch. 126 § 12101 et. seq.

The type of claim shouldn’t matter, of course; since a pretrial detainee has not been found guilty of a crime, the constitution prohibits punishing him with shoddy medical care and lousy conditions that prisoners are subjected to. But that’s exactly what Carlos Hall, Sr. claimed he suffered at Arkansas’s Pulaski County Regional Detention Center (PCRDC), where he was detained pretrial from April 11 to May 20, 2019.

In a wheelchair because he is paralyzed from the waist down, Hall suffers from bowel incontinence, it was noted in his initial medical screening, requiring use of a catheter and ostomy bag. That resulted in assignment to a lower bunk and lower-level housing.

Almost at once he complained that his catheter was leaking. Staff with the jail’s private medical contractor, Turn Key Health, saw him several times but waited four days before finally sending him to a hospital. There he remained another three days for treatment of catheter cystitis. Returning to the jail he continued to complain and file grievances for another 16 days about “various physical and mental issues,” as the district court recalled, before Turn Key staffers sent him back to the hospital. Released the next day back to PCRCD, he continued to make the same complaints until his release 15 days later.

With the aid of Little Rock attorneys Lucien R. Gillham and Luther O. Sutter, Hall filed suit in October 2019 against county Sheriff Eric Higgins, accusing his jailers and medical contractor of deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs and subjecting him to unconstitutional confinement conditions, as well as violating his rights under ADA and the Arkansas Civil Rights Act (ACRA), 2020 Ark. Code § 16-123-101, et seq. Sheriff Higgins removed the case to federal court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, which then granted his motion for summary judgment. Hall appealed.

The Eighth Circuit began with the deliberate indifference and confinement conditions claims. Hall argued that being seen by Turn Key nurses who did nothing to help him was not treatment. But the Court brushed aside his long waits for substantive treatment because Hall got “regular and frequent medical attention.” Rather than treat the quality of this attention as a disputed fact for a jury to consider, the Court decided instead that “no reasonable jury could conclude that the Jail deliberately disregarded Hall’s serious medical needs.”

Similarly, the Court also found that “the evidence shows that Hall struggled with his daily-living activities while detained at the Jail,” making complaints and filing grievances about lying in his own waste for hours and developing bedsores. But the district court had found no complaints noted by Turn Key staff, so the Eighth Circuit said that “nothing in the record” indicated that “Hall’s experience was a consequence of a ‘pervasive and widespread’ custom or practice at the Jail.” Again, rather than treat the dispute as a matter for a jury to decide, the Court simply affirmed the grant of summary judgment on the conditions of confinement claim.

Turning to the ADA and ACRA claims, which the Court considered together, it noted that Hall sought compensatory damages. So to prevail, he had to prove discriminatory intent. Hall said that was proved by the failure to provide accommodations enabling him to use or access toilets, beds and medical services, such as two mental health appointments and pill call.

The Court agreed that failure to make a reasonable accommodation “is separate from a form of prohibited discrimination,” citing Peebles v. Porter, 354 F. 3d 761 (8th Cir. 2004). “[A] public entity must make reasonable accommodations where necessary to give ‘meaningful access’ to programs or benefits,” the Court said, quoting Randolph v. Rodgers, 170 F.3d 850 (8th Cir. 1999), adding that “‘limited participation’ by persons with disabilities is not equivalent to ‘meaningful access.’”

The Sheriff said Hall refused his appointments, but Hall testified that the jail provided no help getting into and out of his wheelchair, so that’s why he could not attend them. This created a fact dispute for a jury to resolve, the Court declared. Thus the summary judgment for Defendants on his ADA and ACRA claims was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings, where a jury would also need to decide whether Hall’s disabilities were so obvious that they required accommodation without his even asking. At the Court, Hall received additional counsel from attorney Samuel Weiss of Rights Behind Bars in Washington, D.C. See: Hall v. Higgins, 77 F.4th 1171 (8th Cir. 2023).

The case has returned to the district court, where trial is set for April 2024. PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Hall v. Higgins, USDC (E.D. Ark.), Case No. 4:21-cv-00106.  

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Related legal case

Hall v. Higgins