July 25, 2011
Ninth Circuit Limits Iqbal's Impact in Prisoner Abuse Case
A split panel (2-1) of the Ninth Circuit ruled today that a prisoner's civil rights claim against a sheriff for deliberate indifference to prison conditions that led to his assault can move forward beyond the pleadings. In so ruling, the court declined to extend the holding in Ashcroft v. Iqbal--that civil rights suits do not allow for the imposition of vicarious liability--to Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment claims.
The case, Starr v. Baca, arose out of a prison assault. Plaintiff Starr alleged that prison guards opened his cell and allowed other prisoners to enter; the other prisoners then stabbed the plaintiff repeatedly; the guards refused to intervene. Starr sued the sheriff, alleging that he violated his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by acting with "deliberate indifference" to the conditions that led to the assault. (Starr also sued the guards; that claim wasn't before the court.)
The sheriff argued that the Supreme Court eliminated all claims for supervisory liability, including deliberate indifference claims, in Iqbal. He also claimed that Starr failed to plead sufficient facts to satisfy either the pre-Iqbal or post-Iqbal standard for Rule 8.
The court disagreed. It wrote that Iqbal involved a claim of unconstitutional discrimination, and that finding the defendants, AG Ashcroft and FBI Director Mueller, liability without showing a discriminatory purpose would have been "equivalent to finding them vicariously liable for their subordinates' violation, which Bivens and Sec. 1983 do not allow." But this case involved the "deliberate indifference" standard under the Eighth Amendment, not discrimination. The majority wrote,
A claim of unconstitutional conditions of confinement, unlike a claim of unconstitutional discrimination, may be based on a theory of deliberate indifference. A showing that a supervisor acted, or failed to act, in a manner that was deliberately indifferent to an inmate's Eighth Amendment rights is sufficient to demonstrate the involvement--and the liability--of that supervisor. Thus, when a supervisor is found liable based on deliberate indifference, the supervisor is being held liable for his or her own culpable action or inaction, not held vicariously liable for the culpable action or inaction of his or her subordinates.
Op. at 8.
The court went on to rule that Starr's complaint satisfied the Iqbal pleading standard, with a detailed analysis why. (Judge Trott disagreed.) The majority used the opportunity to vent its frustration about the Court's recent rulings on the Rule 8 pleading standard:
The juxtaposition of [Swierkiewicz v. Sorema] and [Erickson v. Pardus], on the one hand, and [Dura Pharmaceuticals, Inc. v. Broudo], [Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly] and Iqbal, on the other, is perplexing. Even though the Court stated in all five cases that it was applying Rule 8(a), it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, in fact, the Court applied a higher pleading standard in Dura, Twombly and Iqbal.
Op. at 24.
This is almost certainly not the end of this case. It's a good case to test Iqbal's reach on vicarious liability and pleading standards. Look for it to go to an en banc Ninth Circuit and maybe even to the Supreme Court.
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