I. Hope v. Pelzer's Background. (Skip to Part II if you're familiar with the case.)
Under 42 U.S.C. 1983, a state actor is liable for violating the rights of others. Prisoners in state prison have the right under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment to be free from "cruel and unusual punishment." In Hope v. Pelzer (here) Larry Hope sued under Section 1983 after prison guards allegedly handcuffed his arms to a metal bar. His arms were cuffed above shoulder level. They had made him take off his shirt, and left him in the Alabama sun for seven hours. They denied him bathroom breaks, and when he asked for water, they mocked him. They then gave some water to the dogs, and kicked over the water cooler.
In Section 1983 actions, government officials can assert the qualified immunity defense. In sum, they won't be held liable even if they violate someone's constitutional rights, if the person's constitutional rights were clearly established. The prison guards argued that the right to not be left in the Alabama sun without water for over seven hours, while perhaps being cruel and unusual punishment, wasn't something a prison guard would have known was cruel and unusual. In other words, pehaps taking a low view of what prison guards are expected to know, they argued that prison guards would have thought they behaved just fine.
The Supreme Court rejected that view in a 6-3 opinion; Larry Hope's case could go to trial. Mr. Hope's lawyers tried his case before a judge instead of a jury. After Hope's lawyers finished their arguments, the judge dismissed the case, writing that Hope's case failed as a matter of law. (Called a "Rule 50 order" after Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure; the judge's order dismissing the case is here. You can read Scott Simonson's excellent article about the case here.)
II. The trial court's order.
Either the judge or her law clerk didn't fully understand the law, and wrote a confused order. The judge wrote:
To prevail on an Eighth Amendment challenge, a prisoner must satisfy both an objective and subjective test. Chandler v. Crosby, [here] 379 F.3d 1278, 1289-90 (11th Cir. 2004). Under the objective analysis, the "prisoner must prove that the condition he complains of is sufficiently serious to violate the Eighth Amendment." Id. at 1289. Pursuant to the subjective analysis, the prisoner must show that the prison officials acted with "deliberate indifference" with regard to the condition at issue. Id. A prison official acts with "deliberate indifference" when he is "aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and he must also draw that inference." Id. at 1290.
Rule 50 order. This is a clumsy way of writing things, and someone unfamiliar with this area of law would justifiably be a little confused. But it would be good enough, if didn't get so murky later on:
Although the use of the restraining bar in this case constituted cruel and unusual punishment, as found by the Supreme Court in Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 737-78 (2002), Plaintiff failed to meet his burden of proof as to the individual liability of the three named defendants. Specifically, Plaintiff offered no evidence to prove that any of the individual defendants acted with deliberate indifference, or were aware of a substantial risk of serious harm. Merely showing that an Eighth Amendment violation occurred, without more, is not sufficient to impose liability on the defendants in this case.
Id. at 1-2 (emphasis added). Yet "showing an Eighth Amendment violation occurred," by definition, means that the the plaintiff proved deliberate indifference. Thus, so best as I can tell, here is what the judge was trying to say:
To prevail in this case, Plaintiff must prove that the condition he complains of constitutes cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the Eighth Amendment. He must also show that the defendants acted with deliberate indifference with regard to the condition at issue. A prison official acts with deliberate indifference when he, through more than mere negligence, has a (1) subjective knowledge of a risk of serious harm; and (2) he disregards that risk.
In other words, something cruel and unusual must have happened to the prisoner. Cruel and unusual pulishment includes "[t]he unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain," Whitley v. Albers, (here), which are painful things guards to do prisoners "that are
totally without penological justification." Rhodes v. Chapman (here). The Supreme Court noted that, as a matter of law, what happened to Hope was cruel and unusual punishment.
Second, the cruel and unusual punishment must have resulted from a prison guard's deliberate indifference. In other words, when the prisoner says, "Hey, in case you forgot, I've been in the sun for 7 hours. This is Alabama. I haven't had any water. I'm could get heat stroke," the guards must think: "Who cares?" That is, they are indifferent, not because they don't know, or because they're absent-minded professors, but because they do know and don't care. In legalese, here is how the Eleventh Circuit (the law that the trial judge was bound to apply), defines deliberate indifference:
[D]eliberate indifference has three components: (1) subjective knowledge of a risk of serious harm; (2) disregard of that risk; (3) by conduct that is more than mere negligence.
West, 320 F.3d 1235, 1245 (11th Cir. 2003). The prison guards were more than "mere[ly] negligence," since they actually handcuffed the guy to the hitching post. So much for the third factor. Thus, the issue before the trial court was this: Did the prison guards have "(1) [a] subjective knowledge of a risk of serious harm," and did they "(2) disregard ... that risk"?
Since deliberate indifference is basically an evil intent, the plaintiff can prove this using circumstantial evidence: the act itself can prove the mental state. That is, if the act itself is so dangerous or evil, the court can infer that the person doing the act intended to harm the person. If someone hits you with a baseball bat in the head, the court can infer that the person intended to harm you, since people don't hit others in the head with baseball bats unless they want to harm someone. Thus, the Supreme Court wrote in Hope v. Pelzer: "We may infer the existence of this subjective state of mind from the fact that the risk of harm is obvious."
Is leaving someone outside with his arms handcuffed to a metal pole, and denying him water and bahtroom breaks obviously harmful? Does taunting someone who is begging for water wanton and cruel? To use a legal term of art: Well, duh.
Yet here the judge wrote: "Plaintiff offered no evidence to prove that any of the individual defendants acted with deliberate indifference, or were aware of a substantial risk of serious harm." Order at 2. This can't be true. The plaintiff offered "evidence to prove that ... the individual defendants acted with deliberate indifference," by offering evidence that the guards handcuffed him to the hitching post. Here, offering evidence of the underlying act, by definition, meant offering evidence of the defendant's mental state.
Unfortunately, given the way standards of review work, the plaintiff here might well lose his appeal. Then again, a trial court's incorrectly applying the law is subject to de novo review. (That, is the appellate court won't defer to the trial court.) The judge's Rule 50 Order is sufficiently confused that perhaps the plaintiff's lawyer can show that the judge reached her conclusion after misapplying the law.