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Denied Dental Braces? Could be 8th Am Violation, 10th Cir Says

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By Gabriella Khorasanee, JD on July 19, 2013 3:56 PM

Most people hate going to the dentist -- not Arthur Conley.

Mr. Conley filed a §1983 claim against many defendants for alleged constitutional violations resulting from a lack of dental care. With several issues before the court, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision with the exception of Mr. Conley's Eighth Amendment claim.

Eighth Amendment Claim

The court reiterated that the denial of serious medical care, including dental care, is prohibited under the Eight Amendment. Taking the alleged facts as true, the court went on to examine the constitutional liability of the prison officials using a two prong test with and objective an subjective component.

Objective Test

First, Mr. Conley had to show "considerable pain" to qualify as substantial harm under the Eight Amendment. Mr. Conley's complaint alleged that his teeth were so "overlapped, bucked, crowded, or crooked" to the point that he had a speech impediment, clogged sinuses, could not chew properly, chewed holes on the insides of his cheeks, and could not close his mouth and hold in saliva. The condition was so serious that food particles would get stuck in his teeth, and when they dislodged, he would choke.

Mr. Conley's prison dentist told him he needed braces to resolve the issue, but that orthodontics treatment was beyond his capabilities. In a meeting with prison officials the dentist told officials that braces were needed to "preserve [his] life." The officials denied Mr. Conley's request for braces even though orthodontic care was allowed in limited circumstances. Based on the severity of the allegations, the court found there was enough enough objective evidence to raise an 8th Amendment claim.

Subjective Test

Under the second part of the test, Mr. Conley had to show that the prison officials knew of the substantial harm he faced, and by failing to take action, disregarded his risk. Mr. Conley alleged that prison officials met about his situation and said the procedure was "too controversial and expensive," and that the prison dentist should have never told him he needed braces.

Mr. Conley also alleged that he was sent to a maximum facility detention center because he complained about his dental issues, and escalated the issue to the governor. Some officials even went so far as to tell Mr. Conley to stop complaining and "they hoped Mr. Conley would choke to death," Mr. Conley alleged.

The court found the subject test was met because prison officials knew of the dental condition, purposely failed to act and then retaliated against him for filing complaints.

The Tenth Circuit however, was careful to limit Mr. Conley's Eighth Amendment claim to the denial of his dental care. The court specifically stated that the prison's refusal to allow Mr. Conley to self-care for his dental issues with "medical marijuana, an iPod, a laptop, unlimited access to digital music, and pornography" did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

End result? If you're a prisoner, your dream of having straight teeth may be realized, but good luck getting a copy of Playboy.

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