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Eighth Circuit Says Lower Court “Tilted the Scales Too Far” for Jailers in Missouri Detainee’s Fatal Overdose

by David M. Reutter

On October 19, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed denial of qualified immunity (QI) to officials at St. Louis’ “Workhouse” jail in a suit over a detainee’s fatal overdose, finding the lower court “tilted the scales too far in the plaintiff’s favor.”

Unable to post bond after a 2018 arrest, Louis Payton spent several months at the now-shuttered Medium Security Institution, a lockup known as “the Workhouse” since its 1966 opening for perpetuating an 1840s imposition of forced labor on detainees. Surveillance footage there captured some, but not all, of what happened.

Guards did not see Payton receive or take fentanyl, the drug that killed him. Once he lost consciousness, other detainees tried to help by rubbing ice on him. Arriving a few minutes later, guards Matthias Arthur, Philander Hughes and Ryan Branson radioed for medical assistance. But rather than attempt to resuscitate Payton themselves, they stood by and watched as two detainees tried. When trained medical personnel finally arrived four minutes later, it was too late: They were unable to revive Payton, who was pronounced dead from an overdose.

Payton’s mother sued the City of St. Louis, the three responding guards and two supervisors for deliberate indifference to her son’s medical need during the emergency. Defendants moved for summary judgment and a stay of discovery on the same day they filed their answer to her complaint. Plaintiff opposed both motions. The federal court for the Eastern District of Missouri narrowed the case down to the deliberate-indifference and wrongful-death claims against the responding officers and the municipal-liability claim against the City of St. Louis and denied Defendants’ summary judgment motion. They appealed.

The Eighth Circuit began by noting that bypassing discovery put the case in a strange procedural stance before the district court filled some of the holes in the record with allegations from the plaintiff’s unverified complaint. In a typical QI appeal, the Court said, a lower court “has already given us the ‘plaintiff-friendly version of the facts’ based on the evidence.” But here there was no discovery and no evidence and thus the Court was unable to assess its sufficiency.

Moving on to denial of summary judgment, the Court said the district court applied the wrong standard: “that the officers had not come up with any evidence definitively defeating the plaintiff’s claims.” But the party moving for summary judgment “need not ‘produce evidence showing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact,’” the Court said, quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986). Instead, the moving party may discharge its burden by “pointing out” that there “is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case.”

The Court found there was also a second error compounding the first: “The absence of discovery left the plaintiff without evidence to support her claims, so the district court looked to the unverified complaint to rebut the evidence the officers provided,” the Court recalled. This raised the summary judgment burden on Defendants and allowed “unsworn allegations to rebut evidence,” the Court said, vacating the decision.

“But take note of what we do not say,” it added. On remand, the district court might reconsider staying discovery. Armed with the evidence that provides, its judgment then might be beyond rebuttal. “Saying anything more would, after all, overstep our jurisdiction,” the Court admitted. Plaintiff was represented before the Court by attorneys Nathaniel R. Carroll, Maureen Hanlon and Blake A. Strode of Arch City Defenders in Saint Louis. See: Washington v. City of St. Louis, 84 F.4th 770 (8th Cir. 2023).  

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Related legal case

Washington v. City of St. Louis