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In Rare Stand Against Qualified Immunity Doctrine, Supreme Court Will Let Texas Inmate Sue Correctional Officers

— November 8, 2020

The justices say that Trent Michael Taylor was forced into such horrendous conditions that any reasonable corrections officer should have known they were violating the man’s constitutional rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court will allow a Texas psychiatric inmate subjected to horrendously unhygienic conditions to proceed with a lawsuit against six correctional officers.

The Texas Tribune reports that the Trent Michael Taylor had earlier attempted to sue corrections staff at the John T. Montford Psychiatric Unit in Lubbock, Texas.

However, Taylor’s lawsuit was rejected by an appeals court, which said that the defendant officers were shielded from civil lawsuits on the basis of “qualified immunity,” a legal doctrine which protects civil servants and government employees from litigation except in cases wherein such government employees clearly violate a defendant’s constitutional rights.

According to the Texas Tribune, the Supreme Court has, for years, refused to hear most cases relating to qualified immunity—the concept of which has prevented many people from filing lawsuits against police officers, corrections staff, and other members of the wider law enforcement community.


Image via Pexels/Pixabay. (CCA-BY-0.0)

But in Monday’s ruling, the justices said that Trent Michael Taylor’s conditions and treatment was so “particularly egregious” it should have been obvious to any officer that the man’s conditions “offended the Constitution.”

Taylor, notes the Tribune, says he was forced—naked—into a cell, the floor, walls, and ceiling of which were completely covered in human feces. Even the faucet, says Taylor’s lawsuit, was covered in excrement, thereby preventing the man from drinking water.

Three days after Taylor was initially put into that cell, he was transferred into another—there, Taylor states that the unit’s drainage system was clogged, overflowing the cell with raw sewage.

And because that unit had neither a bed or a toilet, Taylor was forced to both urinate and sleep on the cell’s floor.

“No reasonable correctional officer could have concluded that, under the extreme circumstances of this case, it was constitutionally permissible to house Taylor in such deplorably unsanitary conditions for such an extended period of time,” the Supreme Court ruling says. “Although an officer-by-officer analysis will be necessary on remand, the record suggests that at least some officers involved in Taylor’s ordeal were deliberately indifferent to the conditions of his cells.”

The Tribune adds that Justice Clarence Thomas was the only justice who dissented, while recently-appointed Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate in the ruling.

Elizabeth Cruikshank, one of Taylor’s attorneys, said her client and his legal team are pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision to remand the case for reconsideration.

“First and foremost, we’re so grateful that Mr. Taylor is going to have the opportunity to continue his fight to vindicate his constitutional rights in court,” she said in a statement. “We are also really pleased with the broader implications of this decision. The Supreme Court has been really expanding the doctrine of qualified immunity over recent years. And so this is sort of an unusual case in which the Supreme Court said that conduct had really gone too far to qualify to get qualified immunity. And so we think that this decision will hopefully help ensure that other people who are like Mr. Taylor will have the opportunity to vindicate their rights.”


Supreme Court: Texas inmate’s unsanitary conditions lawsuit against prison officials can proceed

U.S. Supreme Court allows inmate to sue prison officers after he was forced to spend six days in unsanitary cells with human waste

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