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Smith v. Allbaugh.

No. 20-6029.  W.D.Okla. Judge Kelly. 42 USC § 1983—Qualified Immunity—Deliberate Indifference—Plausibility Standard—Standing.

February 8, 2021

England was a 21-year-old prisoner at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center (JHCC), an Oklahoma Department of Corrections (ODOC) facility. Over the course of a week, he submitted five sick calls, reporting severe abdominal pain, breathing difficulty, and elevated pulse rate. He had lost 12 pounds in less than two weeks. He was seen by the prison’s nurse and physician assistant (PA) but was not examined by the doctor. The nurse and PA prescribed laxatives, ibuprofen, fibrous foods, and Pepto Bismol. England died from a ruptured appendix with acute peritonitis about a week after the first sick call.

Plaintiff filed suit as next friend of England, her son, asserting 42 USC § 1983 claims against various ODOC employees in addition to state law claims. Allbaugh, then ODOC director, and prison warden Bear (collectively, defendants) filed motions to dismiss on grounds of qualified immunity and challenged plaintiff’s standing. The district court denied the motions.

On appeal, defendants argued that the district court lacked jurisdiction over this action because plaintiff was not the legal administrator of England’s estate when she filed her initial complaint. However, under Oklahoma law, a decedent’s next of kin may bring a wrongful death action even if that person has not yet been appointed a personal representative.

Defendants also argued that plaintiff failed to state a claim for the underlying deliberate indifference claims. Here, plaintiff plausibly alleged that the JHCC staff was deliberately indifferent to England’s serious medical needs when he presented with severe symptoms but was prescribed woefully inadequate treatment; they failed to follow ODOC procedures by not contacting emergency services; and they coerced England to sign a waiver despite his physical symptoms.

Defendants further contended that plaintiff failed to state a claim for supervisory liability for failing to implement/promulgate sufficient policies to prevent the constitutional violation. While prison staff may have failed to follow procedures, plaintiff did not adequately allege that defendants failed to enact or enforce the policies, nor did she sufficiently plead that defendants improperly hired, supervised, and retained certain medical staff employees. Plaintiff therefore failed to assert sufficient facts to support a causal link between defendants’ actions and the constitutional violation. Accordingly, the district court erred in denying the motion to dismiss on qualified immunity grounds.

The denial of qualified immunity for defendants was reversed.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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