Government Liability News Update

by | Jun 5, 2024 | News

Eighth Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Deliberate Indifference Claim for Inmate


Inmates suing governmental entities for events that occur in the correctional facility where they are confined is a frequent occurrence, so governmental entities should take care to recognize potential defenses and trip-falls that may subject them to liability.

On March 18, 2024, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit released its opinion in East v. Buckner, No. 22-3310, 2024 WL 1154449 (8th Cir. 2024). Therein, Byron L. East, an inmate at the South Central Correctional Center, a facility operated by the Missouri Department of Corrections (“MDOC”), brought a claim for deliberate indifference to his medical needs against Michele Buckner, Assistant Warden, and Americans with Disabilities Act Site Coordinator. East alleged that Buckner was deliberately indifferent in denying him access to properly fitting footwear as prescribed by a physician.

In 2005, an MDOC physician determined that East required extra-narrow shoes. This determination was confirmed in 2016 by SCCC staff. Subsequently, Buckner approved East’s request to purchase ADA-approved shoes from an outside vendor, specifically “one pair of white ADA tennis shoes twice a year.”

East attempted to purchase a pair of “Rockport Prowalker” shoes, but the vendor declined the purchase, stating that they were not able to ship to correctional facilities. East attempted to circumvent this issue by having a family member purchase the shoes in his stead, but Correctional staff notified East that he was required to follow the procedure for ordering goods.

East then attempted to purchase an alternate pair of shoes from Eastbay, an approved vendor. However, Buckner did not approve the purchase, stating that East had only been approved to purchase the Rockport shoes. Buckner notified East that he needed to obtain prior permission to purchase the sneakers from Eastbay. East attempted to purchase a third pair of shoes but was denied because the third pair did not comply with the ADA approved criteria.

East filed a pro se complaint against Buckner in her individual and official capacities, alleging claims under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, but the District Court construed the claim as arising under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Buckner filed a motion to dismiss, which the District Court granted, finding that (1) sovereign immunity barred all § 1983 claims against Buckner in her official capacity; (2) qualified immunity protected Buckner from individual liability on the constitutional claims; and (3) dismissal of the ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims was appropriate because East failed to show he faced discrimination due to a disability. East appealed the dismissal of his deliberate indifference claim, waiving his other claims.

In reviewing the District Court’s decision, the Eighth Circuit looked to the pleading standards for deliberate indifference, finding that a prison official must show deliberate indifference either to a prisoner’s existing serious medical needs or to conditions posing a substantial risk of future harm. 2024 WL 1154449 at *2 (citing Shipp v. Murphy, 9 F.4th 694, 703 (8th Cir. 2021). Further, the Court found that the deliberate indifference standard includes a subjective and objective standard, and a plaintiff must satisfy both. Id., citing Nelson v. Corr. Med. Servs., 583 F.3d 522, 529 (8th Cir. 2009). Finally, the Court stated that a plaintiff must show that he suffers from an objectively serious medical need, and that the defendant knew of and deliberately disregarded the serious medical need or a substantial risk to the plaintiff’s health or safety. Id., citing Nelson, 583 F.3d at 529.

The Court found that East failed to establish an objectively serious medical condition, one that is “so obvious that even a layperson would easily recognize the necessity for a doctor’s attention.” While East included in his Complaint an inter-office communication that East has “very narrow feet and will need extra narrow shoes,” the Court found that the statement does not indicate that East suffered from a serious medical condition. Further, the Court found that, while East alleged that his condition was painful, he did not allege that Buckner knew that his condition was painful, or that failing to provide him with narrow shoes posed a substantial risk to his health or safety. To the contrary, Buckner approved of ADA-approved shoes for his condition.

Finally, the Court affirmed the qualified immunity that shielded Buckner, finding that “East has not identified a case that has determined an inmate with narrow feet, and no other medical condition, has a clearly established right to specialized footwear of the inmate’s choosing.” Id. at 3. Resultingly, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the District Court.

Prison inmates still enjoy constitutional protection for certain actions, and care should be taken when issues of deliberate indifference to medical needs or other clearly established rights may be implicated. However, governmental entities may still enjoy sovereign and qualified immunity, depending on the circumstances. Ensure that inmates’ rights are adequately considered to ensure that these protections remain firm.

You can read the full decision at:


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