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March 6, 2014

Fascinating split Ninth Circuit ruling on prisoner 1983 suits

Because I obsess much more over sentencing matters rather than corrections, I am not likely to muster all the time and energy needed to fully consume and assess what an en banc Ninth Circuit panel did today in the prisoner rights case of Peralta v. Dilliard, No. 09-55907 (9th Cir. March 6, 2014) (available here).  But I know enough to know the ruling is fascinating for various reasons, as this unofficial court-staff summary highlights:

The en banc court affirmed the district court’s judgment following a jury verdict in favor of a prison dentist and affirmed the district court’s judgment as a matter of law in favor of prison administrators in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action alleging deliberate indifference to medical needs in connection with a prisoner’s dental care.

The court held that a prison official sued for money damages under § 1983 may raise a lack of available resources as a defense. The court held that the district court’s challenged jury instruction in this case properly advised the jury to consider the resources that the prison dentist had available when determining if he was deliberately indifferent. The court held that to the extent the court’s prior decisions in Jones v. Johnson, 781 F.2d 769 (9th Cir. 1986), and Snow v. McDaniel, 681 F.3d 978 (9th Cir. 2012), could be read to apply to monetary damages against an official who lacks authority over budgeting decisions, they were overruled.

The court held that the jury had sufficient evidence on which to base a finding that a lack of resources caused any delay in providing care. The court further held that the district court did not err by granting judgment as a matter of law in favor of Dr. Fitter, the prison’s Chief Medical Officer and Dr. Dillard, the Chief Dental Officer.

The court held that the district court’s prior decision refusing to grant Fitter and Dillard summary judgment did not, under law of the case, preclude the district court from reconsidering its pretrial ruling.

Dissenting in part and concurring in part, Judge Christen, joined by Judges Rawlinson, M. Smith, and Hurwitz and Judge Bybee as to parts I, II, and III, stated that the decision overturned more than thirty years of circuit precedent by holding that lack of resources is a defense to providing constitutionally inadequate care for prisoners. She joined the majority in affirming the dismissal of plaintiff’s claims against Dr. Fitter, but she disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that a directed verdict was appropriate on plaintiff’s claims against Dr. Dillard.

Dissenting in part and concurring in part, Judge Hurwitz, joined by Judges Rawlinson, M. Smith and Christen, and Judge Bybee as to parts I and II, stated that the majority effectively held that a state can first choose to underfund the medical treatment of its wards, and then excuse the Eighth Amendment violations caused by the underfunding. Judge Hurwitz stated that as to Dr. Fitter, the majority correctly held that he was entitled to qualified immunity as he had relied on his staff’s medical judgment.

I would be especially eager to know from people in the know if they think this case seems likely to end up before the Justices on the merits.

March 6, 2014 at 04:30 PM | Permalink


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We would need to know how many of the Justices have bad teeth in order to predict an outcome.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Mar 6, 2014 10:05:53 PM

you just got to love the two-faced actions of our courts!

"stated that the majority effectively held that a state can first choose to underfund the medical treatment of its wards, and then excuse the Eighth Amendment violations caused by the underfunding."

So in other words if I decide to shoot one of our fucked up judges like these and I close my eyes before I pull the trigger it's all good!

Posted by: rodsmith | Mar 7, 2014 12:52:42 AM

Without commenting on whether the case will end up before the Supremes, it seems that that the decision hinges on the fact that the case sought damages from the defendant/dentist in his INDIVIDUAL capacity. There is nothing, as far as I know, that would prevent the plaintiff from seeking damages for improper medical care under a tort theory from the STATE. The dentist's inability/lack of authority to budget funds for this inmate's procedure(s) is what protects him from individual liability.

Posted by: anon | Mar 7, 2014 9:48:30 AM

As anon says, the key to the decision appears to be the individual capacity nature of the suit. It does make a certain amount of sense not to hold individuals responsible for statewide budgeting decisions. However, I don't believe that monetary damages are going to be available against the state in a federal 1983 suit unless the state has waived its sovereign immunity to suits for damages in federal court with respect to the issue - and I doubt that's the case.

Posted by: Gray Proctor | Mar 7, 2014 10:50:39 AM


Except that section 1983 suits can only be brought against individuals (although government employers often indemnify their employees, depending on the exact circumstances), the state is immune under the 11th amendment. The state can waive that immunity but I have no idea whether California has done so here.

I can well see lack of resources to do any better being a complete defense to a 1983 suit.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Mar 7, 2014 10:56:48 AM

I think the last two comments make a point as to individual responsibility in this case that has facial logic to it so wonder what the argument is the other way given the court was divided. The majority clarifies -- the dissenters argue that the cost in this context can be passed on to the state given the state here voluntarily indemnifies their agents without running into the problems of the 11th Amendment (I would say "current 11A jurisprudence"). This would itself be a question that might be reviewed by the USSC.

Posted by: Joe | Mar 7, 2014 11:09:18 AM


Just because the state chooses to indemnify does not mean that the claim need not be valid against the sued individual to begin with. There should still be a requirement that the defendant is culpable in order that 1983 liability attach. 1983 concerns itself with the actions of individuals, the states are in no way proper 1983 defendants.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Mar 7, 2014 1:22:14 PM

The dissents argue there is personal liability (divide on who) but as the second dissent notes:

"It would, of course, be unfair to subject a doctor to personal liability because he could not immediately treat every inmate."

That's where the equity balance in their eyes is helped by the costs being passed on to the state. If a doctor here would have to pay high damages for something largely (but as the dissent argue, not necessarily totally) influenced by fiscal matters out of their control, the majority's result does seem fair.

The dissents offer a possible approach to answer logical concerns. I remain agnostic as to the strength of their legal argument.

Posted by: Joe | Mar 7, 2014 3:38:57 PM

personally I think the state and the court is talking out of their asses. They strip the proper funds to do the job and then require you to sue an individual in the 1983 suit knowing the state is the responsible party not the individual. Sounds to me like in a case such as this if the state and the courts are to be above board. The state should have automatically been a party to the suit. The individual who is LOCKED UP should not have to start from scratch.

IF this type of criminal shit goes on long enough the state and the febs just might discover the citizens exercising their right to conduct a 1911 action against them all.

Posted by: rodsmith | Mar 8, 2014 2:04:57 PM

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