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Palmer v. Correct Care Solutions, LLC

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Columbus Division

December 5, 2017

QUINTIN PALMER, Plaintiff,
v.
CORRECT CARE SOLUTIONS, LLC., CORRECTIONAL HEALTHCARE COMPANIES, INC., JOHN DARR in his individual and official capacities, COMMANDER DANE COLLINS in his individual and official capacities, and Dr. EDET BASSEY, MD, in his individual and official capacities, Defendants.

          ORDER

          CLAY D. LAND, CHIEF U.S. DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         One hundred forty-three county jails are spread throughout the state of Georgia, housing tens of thousands of detainees on any given day.[1] Many (perhaps most) of these detainees are awaiting trial and have been convicted of no crime. Thus, they are presumed to be innocent. Someone must address their essential needs during their detention, including the provision of constitutionally mandated food and healthcare. Generally, county sheriffs and the county in which these jails are located share that responsibility--the sheriff operates the jail and the county funds it. Although operational and fiscal responsibility may be clearly demarcated under Georgia law, legal responsibility when something goes wrong apparently is not. And thus, the federal reporters are filling up with cases explaining who can be liable when a county jail detainee's federal constitutional rights are violated because of a failure to provide the detainee with essential needs such as food and medical care.

         The issue presently before the Court is whether a county detainee may recover money damages in a federal court against a county sheriff in his official capacity to compensate him for injuries he suffered as a result of the violation of his federal constitutional right to receive constitutionally mandated medical care. The resolution of this issue depends upon whether a county sheriff acts as a state officer when he provides medical care in a county jail. If he does, the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution protects him from liability in his official capacity in federal court.

         The implications of a ruling that shields a county sheriff from liability for his unconstitutional conduct in the operation of a county jail are significant. Such a ruling would deprive a detainee in a county jail who is injured because of the conscious indifference to his medical needs by the county sheriff of a meaningful remedy in federal court against the sheriff for this federal constitutional violation. And if a finding that the sheriff is a state actor means that he is not a county actor, the detainee may also have no remedy against the county pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[2] The undersigned previously rejected the notion that neither the county nor the county sheriff could be liable for money damages arising from the failure to provide constitutionally mandated medical care to a county detainee in a county jail. See Youngs v. Johnson, No. 4:06-CV-19 (CDL), 2008 WL 4816731, at *7-*8 (M.D. Ga. Oct. 30, 2008). But the Eleventh Circuit has laid additional bricks in the “immunity wall” since the Court rendered that decision, and in light of recent Eleventh Circuit precedent, it appears that the Eleventh Amendment blocks a detainee from vindicating his federal constitutional rights against a Georgia sheriff under such circumstances. See Lake v. Skelton (Lake I), 840 F.3d 1334, 1339-42, reh'g denied 871 F.3d 1340 (2017) (en banc) (holding that a Georgia sheriff acts as an arm of the state when he provides food to county detainees in a county jail).[3]Although the Eleventh Circuit has not yet held that a Georgia sheriff is protected by the Eleventh Amendment for his failure to provide constitutionally mandated medical care to county jail detainees, a constitutional claim arising from the failure to provide food, which the Eleventh Circuit held in Lake I cannot be asserted against a Georgia sheriff in his official capacity in federal court because of the Eleventh Amendment, appears indistinguishable for Eleventh Amendment purposes from a claim arising from the failure to provide medical care.

         Plaintiff Quintin Palmer suffers from sickle cell disease. Palmer alleges that he did not receive adequate medical treatment while he was a detainee at the Muscogee County Jail and that he suffered serious injuries as a result. He sued those parties who he claims are legally responsible for his injuries, including the Muscogee County Sheriff and his commanding officer in the county jail. Palmer sued the sheriff and his commander in their official and individual capacities. They seek dismissal of the official capacity claims based on Eleventh Amendment immunity.

         Palmer makes a compelling argument that the Eleventh Amendment was never intended to shield a county sheriff and his officers from liability arising from their failure to provide adequate, constitutionally mandated medical care to those persons entrusted to their care. But Eleventh Amendment precedent in this Circuit has evolved to provide an almost insurmountable wall protecting Georgia sheriffs sued in their official capacities for violating the federal constitutional rights of county jail detainees. Whether that precedent is well-reasoned is of no concern to this Court; the Court is duty bound to apply it. Based on that precedent, this Court must find that the sheriff and his jail commander are entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity on Palmer's official capacity claims. Their motions to dismiss those claims (ECF Nos. 2 & 17) are therefore granted.

         DISCUSSION

         Under the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, “[a] state is immune from a suit for damages in federal court by one of its own citizens.” Lake I, 840 F.3d at 1337 (citing Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U.S. 1, 14-17 (1890)). Many courts have explained the ideological rationale for the Eleventh Amendment. The Amendment “‘is rooted in a recognition that the States, although a union, maintain certain attributes of sovereignty, ' and a purpose of the Eleventh Amendment is to ‘accord[ ] the States the respect owed them as members of the federation' and not to affront the ‘dignity' or ‘integrity' of a state by requiring a state to respond to lawsuits in federal courts.” Manders v. Lee, 338 F.3d 1304, 1327-28 (11th Cir. 2003) (en banc) (alteration in original) (quoting Hess v. Port Auth. Trans-Hudson Corp., 513 U.S. 30, 39-40 (1994)). As a practical matter, the primary impetus was “the prevention of federal-court judgments that must be paid out of a State's treasury.” Hess, 513 U.S. at 48.

         Eleventh Amendment immunity extends beyond actions that name a state directly as a party. It also protects “an official when he acts [in his official capacity] as an ‘arm of the State.'” Lake I, 840 F.3d at 1337 (quoting Manders, 338 F.3d at 1308). But this immunity “does not extend to counties and similar municipal corporations.” Mt. Healthy City Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 280 (1977). Therefore, when a government actor's unconstitutional conduct causes harm, zealous lawyers fight mightily over whether that official's conduct arises from the performance of a state function or a local one. This battle is particularly intense when the government official appears to wear two hats from time to time-one for certain state functions and one for local ones. County sheriffs have found themselves in the middle of this fight. Because official capacity claims against a sheriff and his deputies are considered claims against the office of the sheriff, the fundamental question generally becomes whether the office of sheriff was engaged in a state function when its officers committed the alleged unconstitutional conduct.

         The precise issue that the Court must resolve today is whether a Georgia sheriff acts as an arm of the State when providing medical care to county jail detainees. If the sheriff acts as an arm of the State when performing this function, then Palmer's official capacity claims against the sheriff and his jail commander are barred by the Eleventh Amendment, and the Court lacks jurisdiction over these claims. See, e.g., McClendon v. Ga. Dep't of Cmty. Health, 261 F.3d 1252, 1256 (11th Cir. 2001) (“[F]ederal courts lack jurisdiction to entertain claims that are barred by the Eleventh Amendment.”).

         Determining whether a county sheriff is a state official would seem to be a rather straightforward inquiry. But we have learned that it is not enough that the sheriff is the “Sheriff of Muscogee County” or that his law enforcement responsibilities are restricted primarily to the geographic boundaries of the county which he serves. It appears to matter little that he is in charge of the county jail and that this jail is funded by the county taxpayers. In fact, recent precedent suggests that it is not terribly important that the county sheriff's budget is funded by the taxpayers who reside within the county in which the sheriff serves and who elect the county sheriff. Such facts are brushed aside as the product of superficial analysis that must yield, of course, to one of those “sophisticated” multipart balancing tests loved by law professors and appellate judges.

         The four factors that we district judges have been instructed to balance are: “(1) how state law defines the entity; (2) what degree of control the State maintains over the entity; (3) where the entity derives its funds; and (4) who is responsible for judgments against the entity.” 338 F.3d at 1309. In the 2016 published panel decision in Lake I, two of the three members of the panel, after weighing these factors, concluded that a Georgia sheriff acts as an arm of the State in providing food to county jail detainees. Lake I, 840 F.3d at 1340-44.[4] The panel's holding and rationale suggest that it would reach the same conclusion regarding a county sheriff's provision of medical care (or lack thereof) to county jail detainees. Id.

         In fact, Judge Beverly Martin, in her dissent from the en banc majority decision not to rehear the Lake I panel decision, made the observation that the decision in Lake I meant that Georgia sheriffs would be entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity on medical care claims. Lake v. Skelton (Lake II), 871 F.3d 1340, 1340 (11th Cir. 2017) (en banc). She stated, “no person in a county jail will be able to sue his jailer (in the jailer's official capacity) for damages in federal court, even where the jailer violated the law by depriving the inmate of life's most basic necessities: food, clothing, and medical care.” Id. at 1346 (Martin, J., dissenting) (emphasis added). In response to Judge Martin's dissent, Judge William Pryor, who authored the panel opinion in Lake I, noted that the Lake I panel “did not decide whether the sheriff is entitled to sovereign immunity when he provides medical care, ” and he stated that “a review of Georgia law might lead to a different result in a case about the provision of medical care.” Id. at 1344. But he did not explain how the provision of medical care was distinguishable from the provision of food for Eleventh Amendment purposes. While it was unnecessary to make that distinction in Lake I, it cannot be ignored that Lake I (1) examined Georgia statutes that govern both the provision of medical care and the provision of food in Georgia county jails and (2) analogized the sheriff's duty to provide food to county jail detainees to the sheriff's duty to provide medical care to county jail detainees. See Lake I, 840 F.3d at 1339-42. Thus, while Lake I may not mandatorily bind future panels on the issue of Eleventh Amendment immunity from county jail detainee medical claims, it certainly will constrain them.

         Bound by the holding in Lake I and constrained by its rationale, this Court can find no distinction for Eleventh Amendment purposes between a county sheriff feeding county detainees in a county jail and a county sheriff taking care of the medical needs of those same county detainees in that same county jail. Thus, with reservations as to whether this analysis reaches the proper constitutional result but with no hesitation that it is required by current binding ...


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