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A Loch Ness Monster Spotting: Qualified Immunity Denied to Texas Correctional Officers

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I was checking the newly released opinions from the United States Supreme Court and Taylor v. Riojas (11/2/2020) caught my eye.  I’m not sure why.  I must have seen “qualified immunity” somewhere in the summary. Taylor v. Riojas was one of the bunch of qualified immunity cases coming up at the same time before the Supreme Court and on which there was much speculation over whether the Supreme Court might overturn the qualified immunity doctrine. “Qualified Immunity” is a judicially-created doctrine that gives police officers and correctional officers the benefit of the doubt when someone under their control has suffered injury.  This Judge-made doctrine shields an officer from suit when she/he makes a decision that, even if constitutionally deficient, reasonably misapprehends the law governing the circumstances she/her confronted. Excuse the pun, but it is a get-out-of-jail-free card to officers.

I call the Taylor v. Riojas opinion a Loch Ness Monster because it denied correctional officers in Texas the usual qualified immunity. Thus, like the Loch Ness Monster, you have heard of cases in which (hypothetically) qualified immunity was denied but you have never actually seen one.  Well, now you have. The United States Supreme Court reversed the 5th Circuit and remanded the case for trial.  Before we take stock of that, you need to know the facts of the case.  I am quoting directly from the 2 and 1/4 page opinion, perhaps the shortest in Supreme Court history.

“Petitioner Trent Taylor is an inmate in the custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Taylor alleges that, for six full days in September 2013, correctional officers confined him in a pair of shockingly unsanitary cells. The first cell was covered, nearly floor to ceiling, in “ ‘massive amounts’ of feces”: all over the floor, the ceiling, the window, the walls, and even “ ‘packed inside the water faucet.’ ” Taylor v. Stevens, 946 F.3d 211, 218 (CA5 2019). Fearing that his food and water would be contaminated, Taylor did not eat or drink for nearly four days. Correctional officers then moved Taylor to a second, frigidly cold cell, which was equipped with only a clogged drain in the floor to dispose of bodily wastes. Taylor held his bladder for over 24 hours, but he eventually (and involuntarily) relieved himself, causing the drain to overflow and raw sewage to spill across the floor. Because the cell lacked a bunk, and because Taylor was confined without clothing, he was left to sleep naked in sewage.
The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit properly held that such conditions of confinement violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. But, based on its assessment that “[t]he law wasn’t clearly established” that “prisoners couldn’t be housed in cells teeming with human waste” “for only six days,” the court concluded that the prison officials responsible for Taylor’s confinement did not have “ ‘fair warning’ that their specific acts were unconstitutional.” 946 F.3d at 222 (quoting Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 741, 122 S.Ct. 2508, 153 L.Ed.2d 666 (2002)).”
Taylor v. Riojas, 19-1261, 2020 WL 6385693, at *1 (U.S. Nov. 2, 2020).
There was also plenty of evidence that these officers were deliberately indifferent to Mr. Taylor’s rights. One officer, upon placing Taylor in the first feces-covered cell, remarked to another that Taylor was “ ‘going to have a long weekend’ ”. Another officer, upon placing Taylor in the second cell, told Taylor he hoped Taylor would “ ‘f***ing freeze’ ”.
The Supreme Court reversed the 5th Circuit and held that “any reasonable officer should have realized that Taylor’s conditions of confinement offended the Constitution.”
Yay. A victory for the inmate’s constitutional rights. This is how it should have been decided. Yay Supreme Court.
But…not so fast.
Here are the things that are simply mind-boggling in this case:
1.  The 5th Circuit did not agree that these facts amounted to a constitutional violation of the inmate’s rights.
2. The 5th Circuit had granted the officers complete immunity under the qualified immunity judicial doctrine.
3. The U.S. Supreme Court took the case.
4. When Mr. Taylor lost in the trial court and appealed to the 5th Circuit, the State of Texas opposed it and took the position that the treatment the officers subjected Mr. Taylor to was perfectly fine, or at least defendable.
5.  Justice Clarence Thomas dissented.
Let that sink in.

Robin Frazer Clark is a trial lawyer who pursues justice for those who have personal injury claims as a result of being injured in motor vehicle wrecks, trucking wrecks, defective products, defective maintenance of roads, premises safety, medical malpractice and other incidents caused by the negligence of others.  Ms. Clark was the 50th President of the State Bar of Georgia, a Past President of Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, a Past President of the Lawyers Club of Atlanta and has practiced law in Georgia for 31 years. She is a member of the International Society of Barristers and of the American Board of Trial Advocates. Ms. Clark is listed as one of the Top 50 Women Trial Lawyers in Georgia and is a Georgia Super Lawyer. Ms. Clark is the Co-Host of the Podcast “See You In Court.”

Robin Frazer Clark ~ Dedicated to the Constitution’s Promise of Justice for All.

 

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