Monday, February 14, 2011
Ninth Circuit Revives Suit Against Baca Over Jail Beating
Alleged Indifference Enough to Charge Sheriff With Liability, Divided Panel Says
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A public official may be individually sued for civil rights violations if he or she has knowledge of unconstitutional conduct by subordinates and does nothing to stop it, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday.
The judges yesterday revived a suit by a former county jail inmate who alleges that Sheriff Lee Baca’s indifference to brutality was responsible for the inmate being severely injured in 2006. A divided panel said Dion Starr adequately pled a claim for supervisorial liability against the sheriff.
Starr alleged that he was threatened by a group of inmates at his cell door and that he yelled for help from the deputies, but that instead of protecting him, a deputy opened the cell door, allowing the group to stab him 23 times. As he lay bleeding and in pain, he claimed, a deputy hurled racial epithets at him and kicked him numerous times.
He sued the sheriff, as well as the individual deputies. The complaint cited numerous instances of violence against inmates by deputies, as well as instances in which deputies were alleged to have been deliberately indifferent to inmate-on-inmate violence.
Baca knew or should have known of these incidents, but failed to take corrective action, the plaintiff claimed.
U.S. District Judge George H. Wu dismissed Baca from the suit, after allowing several amendments to the complaint. He ruled that in the absence of an allegation that the sheriff participated in the violence, or personally reviewed or investigated it, or that he personally promulgated a policy that led to Starr being attacked, the sheriff could not be held liable on a deliberate indifference theory.
Following initial briefing on the appeal, the panel asked for supplemental briefing as to whether a supervisor could be held individually liable after Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009). The high court held there that a Muslim who claimed that the circumstances of his detention after the Sept. 11 attacks constituted religious discrimination could not sue the attorney general or the FBI director, absent an allegation that they personally acted from a discriminatory motive.
Following that briefing, Judge William A. Fletcher wrote for the Ninth Circuit that Iqbal did not necessarily bar Starr’s action. “We see nothing in Iqbal that indicates that the Supreme Court intended to overturn longstanding case law on deliberate indifference claims against supervisors in conditions of confinement cases,” the judge wrote.
Several other circuits, he noted, have allowed deliberate indifference claims against supervisors to go forward post-Iqbal.
Fletcher also rejected the claim that Starr’s claims were too flimsy to go forward, even under pre-Iqbal law.
“Starr alleges that Sheriff Baca’s knowledge of the unconstitutional conditions in the jail, including his knowledge of the culpable actions of his subordinates, coupled with his inaction, amounted to acquiescence in the unconstitutional conduct of his subordinates,” Fletcher wrote.
Because California law makes the sheriff responsible for the “safekeeping” of inmates, Fletcher wrote, his acquiescence in violations of inmate civil rights would make him individually liable.
The judge—who is the coauther of a casebook on civil procedure and has taught the subject for years-went on to emphasize that under Rule 8(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the allegations of a complaint will generally be deemed adequately pled if they are sufficiently detailed to give the defendant “fair notice...so that the party may effectively defend,” and are “sufficiently plausible that it is not unfair to require the opposing party to be subjected to the expense of discovery.”
The allegations against Baca, unlike those against the attorney general and FBI director in Iqbal, are not “bald” or “conclusory,” Fletcher wrote, but are sufficient to give Baca a fair chance to defend his conduct and are sufficiently plausible to allow the suit to go forward.
U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer of the Northern District of California, sitting by designation, concurred in the opinion.
Senior Judge Stephen Trott dissented, arguing that Starr’s allegations fail to meet the standard required to plead a civil rights violation based on deliberate indifference.
Emphasizing that Baca is not being accused of initiating an unconstitutional policy, but rather of being individually responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries, Trott said the allegations must be examined in the context of the “gigantic” Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.
The department, he pointed out, is the primary law enforcement agency for the unincorporated areas of the county and 42 contract cities, operates five jails and is responsible for inmates or detainees at over 100 locations.
“None of this complexity absolves the Department of responsibility for respecting the constitutional rights and general well-being of its charges, but it does show how inappropriate it is to sue the Sheriff individually unless in terms of causation the Sheriff can be personally tied to the actionable behavior at issue.
“Just being a disappointing or even an insufficiently engaged public servant is not enough. Those issues are for the ballot box and the County Board of Supervisors, not the courts.”
Wu, he said, analyzed the complaint correctly in finding that the plaintiff failed to identify “the precise nature of Baca’s misfeasance or nonfeasance” or to establish “a sufficient causal link between Baca’s actions or inaction and the alleged violation of plaintiff’s constitutional rights.”
The case is Starr v. Baca, 09-55233.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company