Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog LLP

In a recent opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a decision by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals granting correctional officers qualified immunity on the basis that the doctrine shields an officer from suit when he or she makes a decision that, “even if constitutionally deficient, reasonably misapprehends the law governing the circumstances she confronted.”  The 7-1 majority (Justice Amy Coney Barret did not participate in the case or ruling) found that no reasonable correctional officer could have concluded that, under the extreme circumstances pled by the inmate, that it was constitutionally permissible to house the inmate in such conditions for such an extended period of time.

FACTS

Trent Taylor is an inmate in the custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. In his action, Taylor alleged that, for six full days beginning September 6, 2013, correctional officers confined him in a pair of “shockingly unsanitary” cells.  Taylor alleged that almost the entire surface of the first cell – including the floor, ceiling, window, walls, and water faucet – was covered with “massive amounts” of feces that emitted a “strong fecal odor.” Taylor was forced to stay in the cell naked. He said that he couldn’t eat in the cell, because he feared contamination, and that he couldn’t drink water, because feces were “packed inside the water faucet.” Prison officials were allegedly aware that the cell was covered in feces. Instead of cleaning the cell, these individuals laughed at Taylor and remarked that he was “going to have a long weekend.” One of the prison officials allegedly criticized Taylor for complaining, stating “[d]ude, this is [M]ontford, there is shit in all these cells from years of psych patients.” 

Taylor was then moved to a “seclusion cell,” which was allegedly in no better condition than the first.  It lacked a toilet, water fountain, or bunk. There was a drain in the floor where Taylor was ordered to urinate. The cell was extremely cold because the air conditioning was always on. And the cell was anything but clean. Taylor alleged that the floor drain was clogged, leaving raw sewage on the floor. The drain smelled strongly of ammonia, which made it hard for Taylor to breathe. Nevertheless, it was alleged that the prison officials repeatedly told him that if he needed to urinate, he had to do so in the clogged drain instead of being escorted to the restroom. Taylor refused to do so, worrying that, because the drain was clogged, his urine would spill onto the already-soiled floor, where he had to sleep because he lacked a bed. As such, he held his urine for twenty-four hours before involuntarily urinating on himself. Taylor remained in the seclusion cell until September 13. Prison officials then tried to return him to his first, feces-covered cell, but Taylor objected and was permitted to stay in a different cell.

Among other claims, Taylor sued various prison officials under § 1983, complaining that the aforementioned squalid conditions violated the Eighth Amendment. The defendants raised the defense of qualified immunity and moved for summary judgment in part on that basis. Taylor responded mainly with his verified pleadings and a declaration.  The district court granted summary judgment regarding Taylor’s § 1983 conditions-of-confinement claim on the basis of qualified immunity, and Taylor appealed.  The Fifth Circuit, inter alia, affirmed, reasoning that it was not clearly established that housing a state inmate in such conditions for a six-day period was constitutionally prohibited, and thus the correctional officers were entitled to qualified immunity from Taylor’s § 1983 claim.  

OFFICERS NOT ENTITLED TO QUALIFIED IMMUNITY

While it agreed with Fifth Circuit’s holding that the conditions of confinement allegedly violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, the Supreme Court found that the lower court erred in granting the officers qualified immunity based upon the assessment that “the law wasn’t clearly established” that “prisoners couldn’t be housed in cells teeming with human waste” “for only six days,” and that, therefore, the prison officials responsible for Taylor’s confinement did not have “fair warning” that their specific acts were unconstitutional. 

Qualified Immunity shields police officers from liability for constitutional violations when, based on “clearly established law,” they reasonably believed that their actions were lawful.  In this instance, the majority found that “no reasonable correctional officer could have concluded that, under the extreme circumstances of this case, it was constitutionally permissible to house Taylor in such deplorably unsanitary conditions for such an extended period of time.” The Court’s decision makes clear that, when confronted with particularly egregious facts such as the instant situation, any reasonable officer should have realized that such conditions of confinement offended the Constitution. 

In his concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito agreed with the majority that the qualified immunity argument should be rejected based on the “horrific” conditions in the cell, and the fact that the prison officials took no ameliorative action despite the availability of other preferable cells or despite the ability to arrange for cleaning of the cells in question. The Justice, however, takes issue with the Court’s decision to grant Taylor’s petition for a writ of certiorari and review the case.  In Justice Alito’s view, the majority opinion does not establish any new legal standards nor resolve a disagreement among lower courts. Accordingly, while Justice Alito concurs in the judgment, he questions why the Court chose to grant review in the case.  Justice Clarence Thomas dissented without opinion.

TAKEAWAY

Given the concerns found within Justice Alito’s concurrence, we are left to speculate as to the underlying rationale behind the Court’s decision to rule on Taylor’s case. While the possibility exists that this particular set of underlying facts were such that Supreme Court felt compelled to act, it is also possible that the Justices in the majority are utilizing this case and subsequent ruling as a message to lower courts to further constrict the latter’s interpretation of the current qualified immunity doctrine, especially in such alledgedly shocking instances.  More importantly, the Court’s decision in Taylor may be a harbinger of things to come with regards to further limitations to the doctrine of qualified immunity. With that in mind, it is crucial for correctional officers to have access to sufficient training with regards to constitutionally permissible conditions of confinement so as to prevent instances such as the situation in Taylor from occurring.

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