57 F.3d 1340 (4th Cir. 1995), 94-7206, Torcasio v. Murray

Docket Nº:94-7206.
Citation:57 F.3d 1340
Party Name:Anthony TORCASIO, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Edward W. MURRAY, Director; G.L. Bass, Deputy Warden; Mary Sue Terry; Steven D. Rosenthal; Rufus Fleming; David L. Robinson; R.J. Beck; G.P. Dodson, Defendants-Appellants, and Vosbeck/DMJM, Defendant.
Case Date:June 29, 1995
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
 
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Page 1340

57 F.3d 1340 (4th Cir. 1995)

Anthony TORCASIO, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

Edward W. MURRAY, Director; G.L. Bass, Deputy Warden; Mary

Sue Terry; Steven D. Rosenthal;

Rufus Fleming; David L. Robinson; R.J. Beck; G.P. Dodson,

Defendants-Appellants,

and

Vosbeck/DMJM, Defendant.

No. 94-7206.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

June 29, 1995

Argued April 3, 1995.

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ARGUED: Mark Ralph Davis, Asst. Atty. Gen., Office of the Atty. Gen., Crim. Law Div., Richmond, VA, for appellants. Nancy Braverman Blume, Hughes, Hubbard &

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Reed, New York City, for appellee. ON BRIEF: James S. Gilmore, III, Atty. Gen., VA, Jill Bowers, Asst. Atty. Gen., Crim. Law Div., Office of the Atty. Gen., Richmond, VA, for appellants. Daniel H. Weiner, Hughes, Hubbard & Reed, New York City, Douglas M. Cott, Spirer & Cott, Westport, CT, for appellee.

Before WIDENER and LUTTIG, Circuit Judges, and PHILLIPS, Senior Circuit Judge.

Affirmed in part and reversed in part by published opinion. Judge LUTTIG wrote the opinion, in which Judge WIDENER and Senior Judge PHILLIPS joined.

OPINION

LUTTIG, Circuit Judge:

We consider in this case whether the district court erred when it partially denied qualified immunity to officials of the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) in a suit by a morbidly obese inmate under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehabilitation Act), 29 U.S.C. Sec. 794, and Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. Sec. 12132. We conclude that, at the time of the alleged violations, it was not clearly established that these acts applied to state prisoners, or that an obese individual such as appellee Anthony Torcasio was entitled to the protections of either act. We also find that the VDOC officials reasonably could have believed that their actions did not violate any right Torcasio had to modifications in his milieu at the Keen Mountain Correctional Center. Given our determination that the appellant prison officials are entitled to qualified immunity as to all of Torcasio's claims, we affirm the judgment of the district court to the extent that it found the appellants immune, and reverse to the extent that it did not.

I.

Appellant Anthony Torcasio suffers from what he describes as "morbid obesity." He stands five feet, seven inches tall, weighs 460 pounds, and has a girth of 78 inches. His obesity, he claims, causes him a variety of physical discomforts, including back pain and sleep apnea. He is unable to walk long distances, incapable of standing or lying down for prolonged periods of time, and susceptible to losing his balance. In a memorandum he filed with the district court, Torcasio characterized his day-to-day existence as "a life of misery and heartache." J.A. at 87.

Torcasio spent three years as an inmate in the Virginia Department of Corrections, residing at a total of four correctional facilities. The present claim relates principally to his time at VDOC's Keen Mountain facility, where Torcasio was housed from April 22, 1993, until he was paroled in the spring of 1994. During his incarceration, Torcasio presented VDOC officials with a lengthy and ever-increasing list of modifications which he insisted were necessary to accommodate his obese condition. Thus, he demanded a larger cell, a cell closer to the support facilities, handrails to assist him in using the toilet, wider entrances to his cell and the showers, non-skid matting in the lobby area, and alternative outdoor recreational activities to accommodate his inability to stand or walk for long periods of time. When the VDOC officials failed to grant him all of these accommodations, Torcasio filed this action, contending that the officials' intransigence violated "the federal laws enacted by the legislative mandate of the United States Congress that federally protects and ensures the rights of the physically disabled person." 1 See J.A. at 13, 77. Torcasio sought injunctive relief as well as monetary damages. 2 In the spring

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of 1994, as this case was proceeding in district court, Torcasio was paroled. The district court accordingly dismissed those portions of Torcasio's complaint that sought injunctive relief. Proceeding to the remainder of the claims, the district court first held that the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act do apply to state prisoners, thereby rejecting the argument of the VDOC officials that the acts do not apply in this context. See Torcasio v. Murray, 862 F.Supp. 1482, 1490-91 (E.D.Va.1994). The court then addressed the question at issue in this appeal, namely, whether the officials were entitled to qualified immunity. The court first determined that "it is clear that correctional facilities were subject to the provisions of the ADA and Rehabilitation Act" at the time of Torcasio's incarceration at Keen Mountain, id. at 1493; this was the extent of the court's inquiry into the essential question of whether the right allegedly violated by the officials--"a morbidly obese inmate's right to the modification of specific services and facilities," id.--was clearly established. Having found, to that extent, that the right at issue was clearly established, the court proceeded to analyze, literally request by request, whether the VDOC officials' responses to Torcasio's requests for accommodation were reasonable. The court concluded that, with respect to Torcasio's complaints about access to the shower, outdoor recreational activities, and his cell, the officials were entitled to qualified immunity, while they were not so entitled on Torcasio's complaints about his toilet, his cell door, and the dining facilities. See id. at 1493-95. The Commonwealth then filed this interlocutory appeal challenging the partial denial of qualified immunity.

Our review of the record convinces us that the district court erred in not granting the defendant prison officials' motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity as to all of Torcasio's claims. "Government officials are protected by qualified immunity 'as long as their actions could reasonably have been thought consistent with the rights they are alleged to have violated.' " DiMeglio v. Haines, 45 F.3d 790, 794 (4th Cir.1995) (quoting Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 638, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 3038, 97 L.Ed.2d 523 (1987)). "In analyzing a claim of qualified immunity it is ... necessary first to identify the specific ... right allegedly violated, then to inquire whether at the time of the alleged violation it was clearly established, then further to inquire whether a reasonable person in the official's position would have known that his conduct would violate that right." Collinson v. Gott, 895 F.2d 994, 998 (4th Cir.1990) (Phillips, J., concurring) (citing Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 535, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 2820, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985); Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 2738, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982)). In our view, proper application of these principles leads inexorably to the conclusion that the VDOC officials are fully entitled to qualified immunity in this case, because the right Torcasio contends was violated was not clearly established at the time of the alleged violations, and because the actions of the VDOC officials reasonably could have been thought consistent with any rights Torcasio might have had. 3

II.

Torcasio contends that by refusing to grant his requested accommodations, officials at Keen Mountain violated "a morbidly obese inmate's right to the modification of specific [prison] services and facilities." Appellee's Br. at 38. The district court found that this right was clearly established during the time Torcasio was incarcerated. We cannot agree.

First, it was not clearly established at that time that the ADA and Rehabilitation Act--the two acts upon which Torcasio's claim of a right to modification of services and facilities is predicated--applied to state prisons. Second,

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even if it were clear that Torcasio, as a prisoner in a state facility, was protected by the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA, it was not clearly established that, as a "morbidly obese" individual, he qualified as an "individual with a disability" protected under either act.

A.

In attempting to demonstrate that, at the time he was imprisoned at Keen Mountain, it was "clearly established" that state prisons were subject to the strictures of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, Torcasio begins, appropriately, with the language of the two statutes. He contends that there can be no doubt that the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act apply to state prisons, because both acts are written in broad terms that clearly encompass state prisons.

  1. Although when viewed in their entirety, the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act are not so broad as Torcasio suggests, see infra p. 1346, Torcasio is correct to observe that certain portions of both statutes employ language which, when viewed in isolation, appears all-encompassing. Title II of the ADA outlaws discrimination against the disabled by "public entities," a term which, as Torcasio notes, includes "any State or local government" and "any department, agency ... or other instrumentality of a State or States or local government." 42 U.S.C. Sec. 12131(1) (emphasis added). The Rehabilitation Act, similarly, prohibits discrimination against disabled individuals "under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance," 29 U.S.C. Sec. 794(a) (emphasis added), and defines "program or activity" to include "all of the operations of ... a department, agency, special purpose district, or other instrumentality of a State or of a local government." 29 U.S.C. Sec. 794(b)(1)(A). We are not persuaded that this language, however, even viewed in isolation from the arguably narrowing text...

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