5th Circuit Sets High Bar for Prisoners’ Challenges to Qualified Immunity

Federal prison inmates face high procedural bars in proving Bivens claims against prison staff for First and Eighth Amendment violations, according to a recent Fifth Circuit decision affirming the Eastern District of Texas’s grant of summary judgment for the defendants. In Petzold v. Rostollan, the Court declined to consider whether the inmate was entitled to a Bivens remedy, instead considering whether his Eighth Amendment “deliberate indifference” and First Amendment retaliation claims were sufficient to avoid qualified immunity.

Petzold v. Rostollan Background

Michael Petzold, a diabetic federal prisoner, injured his ankle one Saturday while exercising in the yard. Icing his ankle did nothing to relieve the pain. Petzold flagged down a nurse—defendant Mike Rostollan—while standing in line to receive his insulin injection. He explained his ankle pain to Rostollan, who told him to ice the ankle and either purchase some pain medication when the commissary opened on Monday or acquire it illegally from the other inmates.

Prison Supervisor Christopher Wooding confronted Petzold later that day, throwing him in a “dry cell” (a cell with no plumbing) for two hours as punishment for his “insolence” towards Rostollan in the insulin line. When Petzold objected and showed Wooding his swollen ankle, Wooding said that he didn’t “care about [Petzold’s] ankle” and admonished him to go to sick call on Monday. Petzold sought medical treatment when sick call opened on Monday, where an X-ray revealed a minor fracture of his ankle.

The Court’s Decision

The Court was not receptive to Petzold’s argument that Rostollan and Wooding showed “deliberate indifference” to his medical needs. Its decision notes that Rostollan did, in fact, give Petzold medical advice for how to treat his ankle. The advice was ineffective and, as the court recognizes, “impossible or illegal”—but it was a far cry from the refusal to treat that is necessary to show “deliberate indifference.” Supervisor Wooding similarly did not refuse to provide medical treatment to Petzold; he simply deferred to the prison’s medical system—which would next be open that following Monday.

The Court also shot down Petzold’s arguments that Rostollan and Wooding retaliated against him for previous complaints that he filed about the inmates’ insulin line. The Court refused to consider them, noting that Petzold’s initial complaint to the prison did not sufficiently convey his grievance—a requirement for a valid administrative complaint. Because prisoners are required to exhaust all administrative remedies before filing suit, Petzold did not set forth a valid First Amendment Retaliation claim.

Federal Case Law Sets High Bar for Prisoners Seeking to Pierce Veil of Qualified Immunity

This case represents another entry in a long line of cases declining to discuss the range and extent of Bivens remedies. The Supreme Court first blessed this strategy in Hernadez v. Mesa, where it held that resolving a constitutional question assuming arguendo that the issue gives rise to Bivens remedy is “appropriate in many cases.”

The Fifth Circuit here followed the Supreme Court’s Hernandez method. Bivens clearly covers claims arising out of Eighth Amendment cruel and unusual punishment, which in turn clearly encompasses deliberate indifference to medical needs. However, the Court sidestepped the question of whether Petzold’s claims—if substantiated—would lead to a Bivens remedy. Instead, the Court merely affirmed a grant of summary judgments on the basis that the Plaintiff did not substantiate his claims of deliberate indifference.

Notably, Judge Oldham’s two-paragraph concurrence argues that, following the Supreme Court’s decision in Ziglar v. Abassi, federal courts no longer have the liberty to sidestep the Bivens question. According to Judge Oldham, federal courts cannot extend Bivens to new sets of facts. Thus, the Court should not have analyzed the merits of Petzold’s claims; it should simply have dismissed his case for not setting forth a valid Bivens claim under existing case law.

Regardless of whether a federal court may sidestep whether a particular plaintiff has a Bivens remedy, Petzold v. Rostollan bolsters the already-weighty federal case law that sets high bars for prisoners seeking to pierce the veil of qualified immunity.