Tenth Circuit Decides Interlocutory Qualified Immunity Questions in Inmate Mistreatment Case

On Tuesday, an appellate panel concluded that two medical professionals who treated a Washington State inmate could not be held liable for civil rights abuses because they are shielded by an immunity doctrine. In its 45-page opinion, the court explained that the Washington County Purgatory Correctional Facility and the two medical staff members appealed from the district court’s denial of their motions for summary judgment, arguing that the court incorrectly decided threshold questions of jurisdiction and qualified immunity.

The case arose from the treatment of the plaintiff, Martin Crowson, who became an inmate at the correctional facility in June 2014. Shortly after, he began suffering from symptoms of toxic metabolic encephalopathy. Nurse Michael Johnson and Dr. Judd LaRowe, two of the medical personnel responsible for Crowson’s care, wrongly determined that Mr. Crowson was experiencing drug or alcohol withdrawal. After a week of medical observation, Crowson’s condition deteriorated, and he was taken to a hospital where he was accurately diagnosed.

After Crowson recovered, he sued Johnson, LaRowe, and Washington County, alleging violations of the Eighth and 14th amendments for deliberate indifference to his serious medical condition. In particular, Crowson complained that LaRowe did not conduct a blood test in reaching the wrong conclusion.

The trial court denied motions for summary judgment on the issue of qualified immunity by Johnson and LaRowe, determining that a reasonable jury could find both were deliberately indifferent to Crowson’s serious medical needs, and that it was clearly established their conduct amounted to a constitutional violation. The lower court also denied Washington County’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that a reasonable jury could find that the treatment failures “were an obvious consequence of the County’s reliance on Dr. LaRowe’s infrequent visits to the Jail and the County’s lack of written protocols for monitoring, diagnosing, and treating inmates.”

The Tenth Circuit held that “Nurse Johnson’s conduct did not violate Mr. Crowson’s rights and, assuming without deciding that Dr. LaRowe’s conduct did, we conclude Dr. LaRowe’s conduct did not violate any clearly established rights.” The court determined that Johnson was not deliberately indifferent to the plaintiff’s serious medical condition because Johnson did not completely refuse to fulfill duty, and instead referred the prisoner to a physician assistant for medical treatment. The court held that while the referral may have been negligent, it did not rise to the level of deliberate indifference.

As to LaRowe, and in particular his failure to draw and analyze blood from the plaintiff, the court held that because “we have found no decisions from the Supreme Court or this court that clearly establish the unconstitutionality of such conduct, we conclude Dr. LaRowe is entitled to qualified immunity, and we reverse the district court’s denial of summary judgment.”

The court then explained that because Johnson’s appeal was “inextricably intertwined” with Washington County’s liability on one of the plaintiff’s arguments, his failure-to-train theory, it exercised pendant appellate jurisdiction over that claim and reversed. However, the plaintiff’s systemic failure theory was not so related, the court found, in dismissing that claim for lack of jurisdiction.

The plaintiff is represented by Roderick & Solange Macarthur Justice Center, The Schriever Law Firm, and Northwestern University. Washington County and Johnson are represented by Mylar Law and Kipp and Christian PC.