SCOTUS Overturns Fifth Circuit in Qualified Immunity Case

Qualified immunity presents a tough hurdle to clear at the initial stages of any civil rights lawsuit—but in a recent Supreme Court opinion, the Court gave one inmate a green light to pursue his claim against the corrections officers who confined him naked in a cell coated in human waste. In doing so, the Supreme Court may be signaling an intent to review more qualified immunity cases in the near future.

Taylor v. Riojas – Background

In Taylor v. Riojas, Trent Taylor, a Texas inmate, sued ten different corrections officers who worked at the John T. Montford Department of Criminal Justice—where Taylor was incarcerated.

Before he could begin seriously pursuing his claim, Taylor first had to get past the jurisprudential shield of “Qualified Immunity” that protects government officials from frivolous litigation. It shields them from any charges that they violated a person’s civil rights unless the person can prove that the civil right was clearly established by previous factually similar case law. This burden is met if a plaintiff can point to a case holding that a similarly situated person has a specific Constitutional right to be free from this specific type of harm.

Here, Taylor was required to prove two elements to pierce the officers’ shield of qualified immunity. First, he had to convince the court that the conditions he endured in prison had violated his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. Second, he was required to prove that the officers were on notice at the time of the incident that the prison conditions violated Taylor’s “clearly established” right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

Taylor’s claims were taken as undisputed for the purposes of this decision.

He claimed that these officers confined him naked in a cell covered with a “massive amount” of feces on the floor, walls, and ceiling. He said he could not eat in the cell without fear of contamination, and he could not drink because the faucet was clogged with feces. He claimed that the officers knew about the cell’s condition. When they put him in the cell, the officers laughed and said that Taylor was “going to have a long weekend.” He spent four days in the cell.

Taylor was subsequently moved to another cell with even more squalid conditions. It lacked a bunk, toilet, or water fountain. The cell was kept very cold, and Taylor was naked. The officers told him to relieve himself over a drain in the middle of the floor. However, the drain was clogged and backed up, and the floor was covered in raw sewage. Taylor held his urine for 24 hours, afraid that if he used the drain, it would back up even further—on to the floor on which he was forced to sleep, for lack of a bed. Taylor stayed in this cell for three days before being removed.

U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Ruling

Here, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that these prison conditions were unconstitutional violations of Taylor’s Eighth Amendment rights. The court determined that these conditions posed a substantial risk of serious harm to Taylor, and that the responding officers were aware of the cells’ conditions.

But the Fifth Circuit held that Taylor could not satisfy the second prong of qualified immunity. The Circuit Court could not find sufficient case law to show that it was “beyond debate” that the police officers’ conduct violated his civil rights.

The court observed that in all prior cases involving squalid prison cells, the prisoner had been confined in the cell for a much longer time (weeks or months, rather than days). It also noted ambiguity in the case law following a ruling from the Supreme Court that “a filthy, overcrowded cell . . . might be tolerable for a few days and intolerably cruel for weeks or months.” Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit held that the officers that had placed Taylor in these cells did not have “fair notice” that their conduct violated his civil rights—thus dismissing Taylor’s claim.

United States Supreme Court Reversal

The United States Supreme Court accepted Taylor’s case and reversed the Fifth Circuit via a per curiam opinion in November 2020. The Supreme Court found that Taylor’s prison conditions were so “deplorably unsanitary” that no reasonable corrections officer could have thought that they were anything but an Eighth Amendment violation. Thus, Taylor has set forth the legal grounds to pierce the officers’ shields of qualified immunity.

Interestingly, Justice Alito issued a concurring opinion in which he questioned the Supreme Court’s decision to hear Taylor’s claim at all. He opined that this is “precisely the situation” that the Supreme Court should not involve itself in.

Justice Alito pointed out the well-known rule that the Supreme Court generally does not hear cases in which the Circuit Courts of Appeals misapply properly-stated rules of law. He also observed that the Supreme Court’s opinion here was not necessary to protect Taylor’s interests. Taylor had been granted permission by the trial court and the Fifth Circuit to pursue numerous other unrelated claims against these corrections officers for conduct that violated his clearly established rights. Thus, Taylor did not need to succeed on the claims about his squalid prison cell to recover from the officers. Finally, he pointed out that the Fifth Circuit held that these conditions were unconstitutional; thus, the Supreme Court did not need to set future jurisprudence that these prison conditions were improper. As such, Justice Alito did not understand why the Court decided to review Taylor’s claim.

What Does This Signal for Qualified Immunity Decisions?

Given Justice Alito’s concurrence, it is possible that the Supreme Court’s opinion in Taylor could signal that the Court intends to review qualified immunity cases with heightened levels of scrutiny in the near future. On the other hand, the Court’s rejection of eight other qualified immunity decisions for its 2020-21 term may indicate that Taylor’s claim was an outlier. Regardless, Taylor now has an opportunity to return to the trial court level and proceed with his claim against the officers.