Prisoners Lose Right to Sue When Medical or Dental Needs are Denied (Peralta v. Dillard, 2014)
A recent majority decision by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal (Peralta v. Dillard, et al. Case No. 09-55907, U.S. 9th Cir. March 6, 2014) has sweeping consequences for prisoners seeking to challenge cruel and unusual conditions of their treatment in California prisons.
A case was brought by a California prisoner before the entire panel of 11 federal judges, known as an En Banc ruling, claiming violations of his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel or unusual punishment. The prisoner’s actions stem from his inability to receive adequate dental care over the course of more than 18 months, resulting in tooth decay and disease.
The Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the prison dental and medical staff. Moreover, the court has impacted the ability of a prisoner to successfully sue for monetary damages in the future.
In its 6-5 ruling, the court pitted the state’s rights against an individual’s rights, ultimately siding with the state. This ruling opens up the potential for continued abuse of California prisoners’ rights because the state doesn’t provide the funds necessary to adequately staff its prison medical facilities, nor will be held accountable for failing to do so.
Prisoners Lose Right to Sue for Lack of Medical Treatment
Cion Adonis Peralta is a prisoner in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). While confined at a state prison in Lancaster, California, Peralta sought dental care for cavities and bleeding gums attributed to periodontitis, or tooth disease, causing him extreme pain over the course of more than 18 months.
State policy requires CDCR authorities to provide a minimum of 1 dentist for every 950 prisoners. However, the ratio of dentists to prisoners at Lancaster was about 1 to 1,500 at the time of Peralta’s complaints, and closer to 1 to 2,000 considering that the dentists at Lancaster were responsible for prisoners in other facilities as well.
After unsuccessful attempts to receive emergency dental treatment, Peralta sued his dentist, the prison’s Chief Dental Officer and Chief Medical Officer for monetary damages in a federal civil rights action (42 U.S.C. § 1983). The prisoner claimed the medical staff was “deliberately indifferent” to his pain and suffering, resulting in a violation of his Eighth Amendment right to be free of cruel or unusual punishment.
A U.S. District Court decided in the staff’s favor, ruling that the dentists could not be held liable in their official capacities for Peralta’s damages because “lack of available resources” was an acceptable defense to their inability to provide adequate treatment.
The Ninth Circuit majority affirmed the District Court’s ruling, overruling its decisions in Jones v. Johnson, 781 F. 2d 769 (9th Cir. 1986) and Snow v. McDaniel, 681 F. 3d 978 (9th Cir. 2012) which could be read to apply monetary damages against a state official who lacks authority over budgetary decisions.
Was This Decision Fair?
Not at all. Holding the dentist and his superiors liable for money damages is permissible, according to 30-year-old case precedent ignored by this court. It is the state, not the dentists, which is underfunding medical treatment, yet the state is being excused of violating the prisoner’s Eight Amendment rights. The state should have been made to pay damages on behalf of the employed dentists sued. After all, it paid for their legal defense.
At a ratio of 1 dentist to about 2,000 inmates, it makes sense that the judges who disagreed suggested that prison medical staff were operating in triage, or war-like conditions.
The five dissenting judges said that this case “effectively eliminates [section] 1983 suits for damages against prison officials, denies relief to those prisoners who have already suffered injuries, even when they are grievous, and permits prison officials to escape liability by failing to perform job duties imposed by law.”
Why Wallin & Klarich Thinks the Ninth Circuit Court’s Decision is Wrong?
The Ninth Circuit has indirectly upheld the state’s right to sovereign immunity under the 11th Amendment. California law permits the government to protect itself from being liable for money damages. Here, this sovereignty comes at the expense of an individual’s right to be free of cruel or unusual punishment.
In the long run, the majority decision in this case encourages California to continue to violate a prisoner’s Eighth Amendment rights by allowing the government to escape its accountability. California doesn’t have to indemnify itself from liability, it chooses to, said the disagreeing judges.
California has too many prisoners and refuses to provide the financial resources necessary to make sure that there are enough dentists and doctors to maintain constitutionally adequate medical treatment.
What Does This Decision Mean to You?
If you are facing criminal charges in California, be aware of this decision. If you are convicted and sent to jail or prison, this case sends a strong message to corrections authorities that they may not have to face consequences for violating your rights. Abuses will continue and there isn’t much prisoners can do about it.
Our advice is that you hire an experienced criminal defense attorney during your case, which gives you the best opportunity to avoid the most serious consequences of a criminal conviction.
What do you think about this decision by the Court of Appeals? Do you think prisoners should be allowed to sue the state or their doctors if their medical needs are not being met? How would you solve California’s prison overcrowding problem? We welcome your thoughts on this topic.