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Ninth Circuit Reverses Summary Judgement in Favor of Prison Officials in Case Alleging They Failed to Protect a Prisoner from Attack by Another Inmate

Mon 27th Apr 2020, Blog

A prisoner’s lawsuit against officials at a Nevada state prison facility has been revived by the Ninth Circuit.  The plaintiff’s suit alleges that prison officials violated his Eighth Amendment right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment by failing to take steps to protect him after he reported a threat on his life by another inmate.  The Ninth Circuit held that a reasonable juror could find that the prison officials were deliberately indifferent to the prisoner’s safety.   

After the plaintiff, Robert Wilk, reported a threat on his life by another prisoner, Nunley, Wilk was moved into administrative segregation.  The move was followed by a classification meeting to discuss his housing arrangement and a request by Wilk that Nunley be placed on an “enemy list.”  The purpose of this list was to apprise prison officials of the conflict.  Normal prison procedures would call for that request to be submitted by the warden or his designee.  That didn’t happen.  Instead, Wilk was returned to a unit adjacent to Nunley’s, who he wrongfully believed had been moved based upon representations by prison officials. 

Wilk was attacked in the yard by Nunley, and suffered a broken nose, damaged eyes, and other injuries.

After exhausting his administrative remedies, Wilk sued the prison warden, associate warden, and his caseworker under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.  He claimed that they knew the risk Nunley posed to him but failed to protect him.  In granting summary judgment, the district court held that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity because the evidence did not establish an Eighth Amendment violation.  ­­­

In reversing, the Ninth Circuit explained that the “Eighth Amendment requires prison officials to protect inmates from violence” and are culpable where they are deliberately indifferent to the “substantial risk of serious harm” an inmate may suffer while under their care.  The Court held that a reasonable juror could find that the defendants were “subjectively aware of the substantial risk of serious harm to Wilk.”  It further held that prison officials acted unreasonably in placing Wilk and Nunley in nearby units and actively misled Wilk by telling him that Nunley was in disciplinary segregation. 

The Court held that none of the defendants could claim that they were ignorant of Wilk’s right to be protected from violent inmates. 

In remanding, the Court further held that Wilk should be provided another opportunity to obtain documents that  he had been denied access to throughout the proceedings.  The Ninth Circuit also encouraged the district court to appoint counsel for Wilk, who had proceeded pro per at the district court level. 

The full April 23, 2020 opinion by the Ninth Circuit may be found here: https://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2020/04/23/17-17355.pdf

Ms. Hawbecker practices both white collar criminal defense and civil litigation.  Her civil focus includes plaintiffs’ matters, including representing whistleblowers and bringing actions involving significant personal injuries.