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Sixth Circuit Denies Qualified Immunity for Prison Officials

By Robyn Hagan Cain on October 18, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Prisoners lose most of the pro se appeals that we read, but today, we have a rare example of a prisoner winning in an appellate court.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in an unpublished opinion this week that Michigan prison officials who ignored a prisoner's documented health needs were not entitled to qualified immunity, and that the prisoner could proceed in his civil rights claim against them.

Stephen Hall is a prisoner in the custody of the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC). He brought a pro se civil rights claim against a group of prison officials, alleging that they unreasonably exposed him to Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS) despite an MDOC medical notice requiring that he be placed in tobacco-free housing.

From July 2004 to December 2006, Hall was an inmate at Michigan's Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility. On April 15, 2005, his medical provider, Dr. Scott Holmes, issued an MDOC Special Accommodation Notice (SAN) stating that Hall required "Tobacco free housing" and a "Bottom Bunk." These housing requirements were specifically designated as "Permanent" on the SAN.

MDOC medical records indicate that Hall was treated for shortness of breath "secondary to second hand smoke" and was prescribed Albuterol, a bronchodilator commonly used to treat lung diseases and other breathing ailments.

On December 22, 2006, Hall was transferred from Bellamy Creek to Thumb Correctional Facility (TCF). Despite the "Permanent" SAN requiring that Hall be placed in tobacco-free housing, Hall was placed in the Cord Unit, which was not tobacco free. Hall claimed that the smoke in his new unit was intolerable, at times he thought he was going to pass out, and he stayed very sick.

Hall's repeated requests for transfer to a smoke-free facility through the KITE prison-correspondence system were ignored, so he pursued a remedy through the grievance process. After three months in smoke-filled housing, Hall was transferred to tobacco-free housing, but he continued to pursue his civil rights claim against the prison for Eighth Amendment violations.

In 2008, Hall sued five prison officials and the prison healthcare provider for violating his Eighth Amendment rights by unreasonably exposing him to second hand cigarette smoke for three months, despite the SAN that ordered permanent smoke/tobacco free housing. He alleged that the defendants knew of the accommodation order in his prisoner file and simply ignored the doctor's order. Halls claims were dismissed in summary judgment, and he appealed.

While the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld dismissal of Hall's claims as to the healthcare provider, it reinstated his claims against the prison officials for ignoring his transfer requests, finding that the officials could not claim qualified immunity.

The court, relying on the Supreme Court's decision in Farmer v. Brennan, noted that Hall introduced sufficient evidence of deliberate indifference to survive summary judgment given the numerous unanswered KITE notices Hall sent to the defendants notifying them of his medical condition, and requesting that they comply with the SAN requiring tobacco-free housing.

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