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Dismissal Affirmed of Florida Prisoner’s Claim for Exposure to Human Waste

by David M. Reutter

On December 11, 2023, the Supreme Court of the U.S. declined to issue a writ of certiorari to hear a Florida prisoner’s appeal to a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, finding no constitutional violation by exposure to urine and feces in a prison shower. The lower court’s ruling on November 9, 2022, further held that a retaliation claim filed by the prisoner, Lynn Edward Hamlet, was too vague, also rejecting his due-process claim over the conditions and duration of his segregated housing.

Hamlet was held at Martin Correctional Institution, known as “Murder Martin” for a high number of fatal stabbings. Emerging from a diabetic coma in April 2018, Hamlet had no appetite at chow time, so he stashed a small bag of rice from a dining hall tray to eat later. Guard K. Shultheiss discovered it and said Hamlet violated a prohibition on taking food out of the dining hall without a medical pass. Hamlet claimed Shultheiss called him “bitch” and replied that “whatever she called me it’s back to her.” Not content to let this bit of schoolyard behavior pass, Shultheiss wrote a disciplinary report for disrespect, claiming it was Hamlet who had called her “bitch.” At a hearing presided over by her husband, fellow guard Lt. A. Shultheiss, Hamlet was found guilty and punished with disciplinary confinement.

The next day, Hamlet was put in a handicap-modified shower with a seat. As the Court recalled, the shower backed up, and “a potato chip bag filled with feces and urine” that was on the floor “floated up and bumped against his ankles”—which had open wounds, thanks to itchy skin from his diabetes that he often scratched at night. When he asked to be removed from the shower, a guard named Hoxie accused Hamlet of putting his own feces in the chip bag and left him there. After 30 to 40 minutes, the feces allegedly got into his wounds. Though there were no medical documents that directly supported the claim, Hamlet became sick with a bacterial infection that culminated in heart valve surgery.

After exhausting his administrative remedies, Hamlet filed a pro se civil rights complaint. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida dismissed First and Fourteenth Amendment claims at initial screening and later granted Defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the remaining Eighth Amendment claim. Hamlet appealed.

The Eleventh Circuit reviewed the Eighth Amendment claim and rejected Hamlet’s argument that it passed muster under Brooks v. Powell, 800 F.3d 1295 (11th Cir. 2015). The Court called Hamlet’s alleged exposure to feces and urine “different in both degree and kind from the extreme exposure” endured by Brooks, who “was forced to sit in his own excrement for two days.” By contrast, “the nature of Hamlet’s exposure to feces was less extreme” and the feces “not continuously pressed against his body.” Hamlet could have simply rinsed off his feet and put them up on the bench seat, the Court said—ignoring his claim that a guard wouldn’t let him out of the dirty shower.

The Court also agreed with dismissal of Hamlet’s allegation that Shultheiss filed a false disciplinary report, calling it too vague and conclusionary, or that she and her husband retaliated against him for filing grievances against them, saying that the claim also lacked detail to support it. Incredibly, the Court found no due process violation when Lt. Shultheiss presided over the disciplinary hearing and adjudicated the report written by his wife. Thus the district court’s order was affirmed. Before the Court, Hamlet was represented by attorneys with O’Melveny & Myers LLP in Washington, D.C. and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center in Chicago and San Francisco. See: Hamlet v. Martin Corr. Inst., 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 31000 (11th Cir.); and Hamlet v. Hoxie, 144 S. Ct. 485 (2023).  

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Related legal case

Hamlet v. Martin Corr. Inst.