Jails and prisons are integral parts of our society. They have been settings for popular television shows and films. Our relatives and friends have been arrested and detained in jails or prisons. Riots, heinous crimes, and scandals taking place in jails, and prisons have been the subject of viral videos and news articles. What the public and many lawyers are not aware of is that, while pretrial detainees and inmates have diminished rights by virtue of detention or incarceration, they do retain certain rights, and they have certain remedies in our civil court system for violations of those rights. The purpose of this article is to cover some of the more common pretrial detainee and inmate causes of action. The article also covers some of the common differences between inmate civil rights claims and civil rights claims brought by non-incarcerated citizens, such as the limitations imposed by the Prison Litigation Reform Act.
State and federal claims in South Carolina
In lawsuits against the government by inmates or pretrial detainees, there are potentially state and federal claims available to the plaintiff.
State law claims against the government in South Carolina must be brought under the South Carolina Tort Claims Act (“TCA”).1 It is not possible to cover all of the TCA’s nuances in this article, but there are a few general principles that will help to distinguish TCA claims from related federal claims. TCA claims are currently capped at $300,000 or $600,000 for a loss arising from a single occurrence2 and $1.2 million for medical malpractice involving a physician or dentist. The statute of limitations for claims brought under the TCA is two years4, and no punitive damages are available under the TCA.5
Federal claims against the government are brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Generally, to succeed on a Section 1983 claim, a plaintiff must prove: 1) a person; 2) acting under color of state law; 3) deprived plaintiff of a right, privilege, or immunity secured by the Constitution; 4) causation; 5) damages.6 The “person” prong is too complicated to fully cover in this article, but generally there are specific requirements as to who can be a defendant in a 1983 claim, and which types of claims in which the defendant can be named. Injunctive and damages claims against individual capacity claims are available against individual state and local government employees.7 Damages claims are available against a local government8 or local government employee in their official capacity.9 Injunctive claims are available against state or local employees in their official capacity.10 Damages or injunctive claims are available against private companies or their employees when performing a government function.11 With individual capacity damages claims, qualified immunity is an available defense12, but all damages, including punitive damages, are available, as well as attorney’s fees and costs.13 With official capacity or Monell claims against local governments and government contractors, qualified immunity is not an available defense, but punitive damages are unavailable as to local governments.14 Unlike TCA claims, there are no caps on damages in civil rights cases (subject to an exception discussed below). The statute of limitations for a civil rights claim is the “most analogous” state statute of limitations, which is three years in South Carolina.15 This article focuses largely on inmate civil rights claims because the law in that area is more developed and complicated, but depending on the circumstances, an inmate or pretrial detainee may have state16 and federal claims available, and there are various advantages and disadvantages associated with the claim(s) in addition to the ones identified in this article.
Differences between pretrial detainees and prison inmates
For civil rights claims, it makes a difference whether the individual is a pretrial detainee or an inmate who is serving a sentence post-conviction.
It is well-settled that pretrial detainees possess a constitutional right “to be free from punishment.” The right as to pretrial detainees comes from the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, which protects pretrial detainees from punishment “prior to an adjudication of guilt in accordance with due process of law.” Courts have applied this to substantive and procedural due process claims pursued by pretrial detainees.19
While pretrial detainees have a right to be free from any punishment, prison inmates serving a post-conviction sentence have an Eighth Amendment right to be free from “cruel and unusual” punishment.20 More specifically as applied to inmates, the Eighth Amendment imposes a duty on prison officials to “provide humane conditions of confinement . . . [and] ensure that inmates receive adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care.”21 In reality, this becomes a distinction without a difference, but it is important to know the amendment under which the claim is evaluated.
Medical treatment “A prisoner’s right to adequate medical care and freedom from deliberate indifference to medical needs has been clearly established by the Supreme Court and this Circuit since at least 1976.”22 Prisoners alleging that they have been subjected to unconstitutional conditions of confinement, including inadequate medical treatment, must satisfy the Supreme Court’s two-pronged test set forth in Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994).
First, Farmer’s “objective” prong requires an inmate plaintiff to demonstrate that the deprivation alleged was objectively “sufficiently serious.”23 To be “sufficiently serious,” the deprivation must be “extreme,” which means that the deprivation poses “a serious or significant physical or emotional injury resulting from the challenged conditions,” or “a substantial risk of such serious harm resulting from . . . exposure to the challenged conditions.” In denial of medical treatment cases, the Farmer test requires plaintiffs to demonstrate the prison official's deliberate indifference to a “serious” medical need that has either “been diagnosed by a physician as mandating treatment or . . . is so obvious that even a lay person would easily recognize the necessity for a doctor’s attention.”25
Second, under Farmer’s “subjective” prong, an inmate plaintiff must show that the prison official(s) acted with a “sufficiently culpable state of mind.”26 In all conditions of confinement cases, including those involving the denial of medical treatment, the requisite state of mind is “deliberate indifference.”27 To prove “deliberate indifference,” the plaintiff must prove that the government official knew of and disregarded “an excessive risk to inmate health or safety.”28 The plaintiff must show that the jail or prison official was aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm existed, and . . . drew that inference. Deliberate indifference is greater than “mere negligence,” but it is something less than acts or omissions committed for “the very purpose of causing harm” or “with knowledge that harm will result.”30 It is somewhere between negligence and knowledge, akin to criminal recklessness. Disagreements between an inmate and a provider about medical care are not typically actionable, 32 and an inmate does not have a right to the medical care of the inmate’s choosing.
Farmer’s subjective prong requires proof of 1) the official's actual subjective knowledge of the inmate’s serious medical condition and 2) “the excessive risk posed by the official's action or inaction.” This subjective knowledge requirement can be met through direct evidence of the official's actual knowledge or circumstantial evidence tending to establish such knowledge.34 Circumstantial evidence includes evidence that a...