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1st Cir. Kicks Inmate Suicide Attempt Case; SCOTUS Appeal Pending

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By William Peacock, Esq. on October 02, 2014 6:46 PM

Back in August, the First Circuit decided Penn v. Escorsio, an arguably obvious case where qualified immunity was denied to prison guards who knew about an inmate's suicide risks, ignored his very vocal threats to do exactly that, then found him strung up in his cell. The inmate, Matthew Lalli, suffered severe brain damage and will require $9 million in care, according to his mother, who brought suit on his behalf.

Now, despite plans to appeal the First Circuit's ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, the case itself will return to the district court and be scheduled for trial, as the First Circuit denied a request to hold the case pending further appeal, reports the Bangor Daily News.

Tragic Indifference

While most court opinions, with the facts filtered through hindsight, carry the "they could've done more" tone, both the First Circuit's opinion and the district court left no doubt in their narratives about how they saw things: these officers simply did nothing, despite knowing of Lalli's suicide risk.

When Lalli was brought in, a suicide evaluation was completed by the intake officer. It scored high enough to make Lalli a clear risk, yet he was placed in a regular cell. When Lalli was brought to court for a bail determination, he repeatedly threatened his own life and said that he had nothing to live for if he couldn't be with his daughter -- he had custody, but bail was denied. On the way back to the jail, he repeated his suicide threats enough that fellow prisoners were concerned and reported it.

And yet, he was left in a regular cell, with no extra monitoring, while the suicide cell was prepared. While he was waiting, he continued to scream threats of suicide and eventually made an attempt on his own life. He was rescued in time to save his life, but not in time to save his brain.

Deliberate Indifference

Of course, doing nothing in the face of an obvious risk of harm is pretty much the definition of deliberate indifference. And at the summary judgment phase, with all facts skewed in the plaintiff's favor, this really was an obvious case.

The district court held that a reasonable jury could conclude the defendants were deliberately indifferent because they took essentially no action to forestall a substantial risk that Lalli would attempt suicide. The court also held that reasonable officials in defendants' positions would have known they violated Lalli's clearly established Fourteenth Amendment rights by not taking any action to forestall this risk.

The First Circuit wasn't even sure the case should be there: "[A] district court's pretrial rejection of a qualified immunity defense is not immediately appealable to the extent that it turns on either an issue of fact or an issue perceived by the trial court to be an issue of fact." (emphasis added by the court, quoting Cady v. Walsh.) And, "Defendants concede that clearly established law dictated they take some action to abate a known risk, whereas the district court found a jury could conclude Defendants took effectively no action to abate a known risk."

But a beacon of hope remained: The First Circuit limited its holding to the summary judgment phase, noting "This opinion should not be construed as holding Defendants are totally ineligible for qualified immunity. Depending on what Defendants can prove at trial, they may indeed be entitled to raise qualified immunity as an affirmative defense."

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