Reed v. Palmer

Decision Date09 October 2018
Docket NumberNos. 18-1429 & 18-1438,s. 18-1429 & 18-1438
Parties Laera D. REED and Paige Ray-Cluney, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Charles PALMER, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit

John M. Sandy, Attorney, Sandy Law Firm, P.C., Spirit Lake, IA, Matthew Grant Sease, Attorney, Kemp & Sease, Des Moines, IA, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

Gretchen E. Kraemer, Attorney, Office of the Attorney General, Regents and Human Services, Des Moines, IA, for Defendant-Appellee.

Before Flaum, Manion, and Rovner, Circuit Judges.

Flaum, Circuit Judge.

The State of Iowa declared Laera Reed and Paige Ray-Cluney delinquent youths and sent them to a juvenile institution in Wisconsin. Plaintiffs filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against multiple Wisconsin officials and Charles Palmer, the Director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, alleging they suffered from the excessive use of isolation cells and excessive force. A district court in the Western District of Wisconsin dismissed plaintiffs’ claims against Palmer at the pleading stage on the basis of qualified immunity, and plaintiffs now appeal. For the reasons below, we reverse.

I. Background
A. Factual Background

In January 2014, the State of Iowa closed the Iowa Girls State Training School in Toledo, Iowa. Defendant Charles Palmer, Director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, subsequently contracted with the State of Wisconsin to use the Wisconsin Girls State Training School (also known as "Copper

Lake") in Irma, Wisconsin. Under the terms of the agreement, Iowa agreed to pay Wisconsin $301 per day for each child.

According to plaintiffs, Copper

Lake comes with a disreputable history. They claim that, since its opening in 2011, it "has had a very high turnover rate of employees," leading to "over worked and untrained staff." They further assert that between 2012 and 2016, the facility received criticism from multiple Wisconsin circuit court judges regarding its "sordid" and "inhumane" treatment of juveniles. Plaintiffs claim a state criminal probe into Copper Lake began in 2015.

Iowa juvenile courts ordered plaintiffs Paige Ray-Cluney and Laura Reed to be placed at Copper

Lake on March 10 and June 4, 2015, respectively. At the time, both girls were sixteen years old. Plaintiffs claim that during their stays, Copper Lake staff subjected them to prolonged periods of "isolation,"1 which involved spending approximately twenty-two out of twenty-four hours each day in a seven-foot by ten-foot concrete cell furnished with only a metal cot and a thin mattress. They allege these isolation cells had urine stains on the floor and wall, and only one window "covered by a thick cage reducing light that [could] pass through." They claim that during their limited periods of release, they were only allowed to "shower, clean [their] room[s], receive 15 minutes to exercise, receive 10-15 minutes to write a letter, and use the restroom." If any time remained, they were required to sit in chairs by themselves and were "not allowed to speak." They allege they were not released from isolation for meals and received little or no educational instruction. Both plaintiffs attempted suicide.

In addition to solitary confinement, plaintiffs also claim they were subjected to excessive force. Reed alleges that, during one of her periods of isolation, a security guard pulled her "fingers through the food tray slot in the cell door," causing "scrapes and bleeding." She further asserts that, on an occasion when she attempted self-harm by placing her head underneath her cot, the same security guard stood on top of the cot in order to tighten it against her neck. She also alleges the security guard "slammed her against [her] cell wall with such force as to leave a contusion on her head and a laceration on her lips

." Meanwhile, Ray-Cluney alleges she was "placed in restraints so tight that they left her arm purple" and "had her head rammed against the wall of the cell." Finally, both plaintiffs claim Copper Lake staff sprayed them with mace on multiple occasions.

B. Procedural Background

Plaintiffs separately filed suit in the Western District of Wisconsin on August 1, 2017. They each asserted violations of the Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for cruel and unusual punishment, excessive force, and deprivation of due process. They additionally brought common law claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence. Finally, Reed alleged multiple violations of the Iowa state constitution.

The named defendants in both cases were almost entirely Wisconsin officials associated with Copper

Lake.2 The lone exception was Palmer. According to the complaints in each case: the state of Iowa, by and through Palmer, contracted with the state of Wisconsin to use the Copper Lake facility; Palmer had custody of both plaintiffs in June 2015 pursuant to court orders; the State of Iowa, by and through Palmer, "monitored and received reports concerning [plaintiffs’] confinement at Copper Lake"; and Palmer knew or should have known of Copper Lake’s use of isolation cells and, despite this knowledge, failed to remove the Iowa girls, failed to ensure Copper Lake’s staff were properly trained and supervised, and acted with deliberate indifference in doing so.3

Palmer moved to dismiss the claims against him in both cases. He raised multiple legal objections, including: (1) lack of personal jurisdiction; (2) forum non conve niens; (3) Eleventh Amendment immunity; (4) failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted; (5) absolute immunity; (6) qualified immunity; (7) lack of personal responsibility; and (8) failure to exhaust administrative remedies related to the tort claims. Palmer also argued that the district court should abstain from determining the contours of the state constitutional claims raised in Reed’s complaint.

The district court concluded that it "need not address" Palmer’s personal jurisdiction defense because it could "resolv[e] the suit on the merits." Specifically, the court found that no law clearly established "what the [C]onstitution requires of a government official in [Palmer’s] position under similar circumstances." As a result, the court held qualified immunity barred plaintiffs’ federal constitutional claims. The court further dismissed plaintiffs’ common law claims for failure to exhaust administrative remedies and declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state constitutional claims.4 This appeal followed.5

II. Discussion
A. Qualified Immunity

We review the district court’s qualified immunity analysis on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion de novo. Ewell v. Toney , 853 F.3d 911, 918 (7th Cir. 2017). In doing so, "we consider the facts, including all reasonable inferences from them, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Id. at 918–19.

"The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials ‘from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.’ " Pearson v. Callahan , 555 U.S. 223, 231, 129 S.Ct. 808, 172 L.Ed.2d 565 (2009) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald , 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982) ). "Qualified immunity balances two important interests—the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably." Id. "The defense provides ‘ample room for mistaken judgments’ and protects all but the ‘plainly incompetent and those who knowingly violate the law.’ " Green v. Newport , 868 F.3d 629, 633 (7th Cir. 2017) (quoting Wheeler v. Lawson , 539 F.3d 629, 639 (7th Cir. 2008) ).

"A state official is protected by qualified immunity unless the plaintiff shows: (1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was "clearly established" at the time of the challenged conduct.’ " Kemp v. Liebel , 877 F.3d 346, 350–51 (7th Cir. 2017) (quoting Ashcroft v. al-Kidd , 563 U.S. 731, 735, 131 S.Ct. 2074, 179 L.Ed.2d 1149 (2011) ). "If either inquiry is answered in the negative, the defendant official" is protected by qualified immunity. Green , 868 F.3d at 633 (quoting Gibbs v. Lomas , 755 F.3d 529, 537 (7th Cir. 2014) ). "In order to avoid [u]nnecessary litigation of constitutional issues’ and expending scarce judicial resources that ultimately do not impact the outcome of the case," courts "may analyze the ‘clearly established’ prong without first considering whether the alleged constitutional right was violated." Kemp , 877 F.3d at 351 (alteration in original) (quoting Pearson , 555 U.S. at 236–37, 129 S.Ct. 808 ). The district court adopted that approach here.

Under the clearly established prong, "the burden is on plaintiffs to demonstrate the alleged violation of their [constitutional] right[s] was ‘clearly established.’ " Id. "To be clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct, the right’s contours must be sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right...." Id. (alteration in original) (quoting Gustafson v. Adkins , 803 F.3d 883, 891 (7th Cir. 2015) ). "[T]he crucial question [is] whether the official acted reasonably in the particular circumstances that he or she faced." Id. (alterations in original) (emphasis added) (quoting Plumhoff v. Rickard , 572 U.S. 765, 134 S.Ct. 2012, 2023, 188 L.Ed.2d 1056 (2014) ).

Ordinarily, to show that the law was "clearly established," plaintiffs must point to a "closely analogous case" finding the alleged violation unlawful. Findlay v. Lendermon , 722 F.3d 895, 899 (7th Cir. 2013). They need not point to an identical case, "but existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate." Mullenix v. Luna , ––– U.S. ––––, 136...

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