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No Qualified Immunity: Deputy Loses Interlocutory Appeal

By Robyn Hagan Cain on December 01, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Today, we have a refresher on the standard of review in interlocutory appeals, courtesy of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Department.

Interlocutory appeals aren't the fuel of everyday practice because most appeals wait until after a judge or jury decides a case. If you're facing your first interlocutory appeal, welcome to the wonderful world of qualified immunity.

First, let's dispose of the facts in the case.

St. Tammany Parish Deputy Bryan Steinert stopped a vehicle being driven by Anthony Brown. During the course of the stop, Steinert searched the vehicle and discovered an empty pill bottle and a plastic bag containing cocaine residue. Steinert arrested Brown and his two passengers, Billy Smith and Casey Lane, and placed them in the back of the patrol car.

While in the back of the patrol car, Brown took from Lane’s underwear a plastic bag containing between five and nine grams of cocaine and at least one prescription muscle relaxant, and swallowed them.

About two hours after the initial stop, Steinert was driving all three suspects to jail when Brown began demonstrating signs of an overdose. Reports conflict as to whether Smith and Lane told Steinert that Brown had ingested drugs, and when Steinert learned of Brown’s condition. Regardless, Brown collapsed at the jail, almost three hours after the stop. Ultimately, Brown suffered two heart attacks and a shortage of oxygen to the brain, which left him permanently brain damaged.

Brown’s family sued Steinert. Steinert moved for summary judgment, which was denied. Last week, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed his interlocutory appeal, allowing the claims to proceed to trial.

Because a court lacks the power in an interlocutory appeal to review a district court’s decision that a genuine factual dispute exists, the Fifth Circuit only considered whether the district court erred in “assessing the legal significanceof the conduct that the district court deemed sufficiently supported for purposes of summary judgment.”

Steinert lost his interlocutory appeal for three reasons:

  1. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals noted that a pretrial detainee has a clearly established right to medical care, and that right is violated if “an officer acts with deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious medical harm and resulting injuries.” Here, the district court explicitly determined that “if Steinert had the knowledge that Brown needed urgent medical care, then his refusal to provide Brown with medical care would be objectively unreasonable in light of established law.”
  2. The Circuit Court lacked jurisdiction to review conclusions on genuine issues of fact regarding whether Steinert did, in fact, refuse to provide Brown with medical care.
  3. Steinert gave no persuasive reason why allegations that he was aware that Brown had overdosed and needed immediate medical treatment were legally insufficient to either support that claim or defeat his qualified immunity defense.

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