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Jason v. Tanner

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

September 9, 2019

CLARENCE JOSEPH JASON, Plaintiff-Appellee,
ROBERT TANNER, Warden, Rayburn Correctional Center; SHANE LADNER, Lieutenant; BRADLEY PIERCE, Sergeant, Defendants-Appellants.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana

          Before SMITH, GRAVES, and WILLETT, Circuit Judges.


         Clarence Jason was struck by a fellow inmate on the back of the head with a yard tool that the prison issued to inmates. Jason sued four state officials under § 1983 for violating his Eighth Amendment rights, claiming deliberate indifference and failure to train. The officials asserted qualified immunity, but the district court granted it only to one official. The other three appeal that denial. We REVERSE and grant qualified immunity to all four officials.


         Clarence Jason was an inmate at a Louisiana prison. The prison has an inmate yard that features a football field, a baseball field, and a basketball court. One day while Jason was on the yard, a fellow inmate struck him on the back of the head with a sling blade. A sling blade is a manual weed-cutting tool consisting of a long wooden handle with a heavy (often hooked) steel blade at the end. The attacker had a sling blade in the first place because Sergeant Master Bradley Pierce had issued it to a third (and otherwise uninvolved) inmate as part of a program in which inmates tended the yard.

         The prison issued a few sling blades each morning. To check out a sling blade, an inmate handed over his ID card. (An inmate relies on his ID for meals, attending educational programs, visitation privileges, and "virtually anything else" that requires leaving his unit. So, apparently, the exchange was a meaningful accounting measure.) Meanwhile, officers supervised the inmates by making periodic rounds in the yard.

         Despite this ID-exchange protocol, one inmate with a sling blade abandoned his tool and wandered off. Before the supervising officer noticed, the attacker picked up the discarded blade and cracked Jason's skull from behind. The blow caused Jason "severe head trauma."

         Right before this, Jason had gotten into an argument with his attacker. But other than that, Jason alleges no previous disputes with him. The prison discovered the attack when the supervising officer, Lt. Shane Ladner, came across a pool of blood and a broken sling blade while on patrol. At that point, Ladner radioed for help, and the officers nabbed the attacker.

         All of this happened despite the prison's Tool Control Policy. The warden, Robert Tanner, testified that he and several other prison officials drafted the Tool Control Policy; that the policy is reviewed annually; and that the American Correctional Association found that the tool policy complied with its standards in every audit since 1993.

         The Tool Control Policy instructs the prison on how to inventory and categorize various tools-like "restricted tools" and "compound maintenance tools." Jason seemed to imply in his brief that sling blades were restricted tools. And the district court too determined that they were restricted tools. But according to the prison officers, "swing blades and other similar yard tools . . . (such as shovels, reel mowers, and hoes)" weren't classified as restricted. Presumably, they may have been classified as "compound maintenance tools."

         In any event, under the policy, the prison stores yard tools in a locked storage room while they're not being used. The prison issued yard tools for two to three hours at a time. And the officers testified that, under the policy, they "received regular, ongoing training . . . to ensure the safety and security of the inmates."

         As for monitoring the yard, Ladner and Pierce testified that

1. They both make rounds;
2. Two "dorm officers" "observe the yard through the dorm windows during their [dorm] rounds";
3. Several tower cameras at the fence line continually show yard activity;
4. The "Gate" officer has a line of sight "over the front portions of [the yard]"; and
5. So do "officers stationed at the gym, and the laundry, and the vo-tech building" as well as the Gate officer for another, nearby prison unit.

         But none of these measures prevented this attack.

         Going "at least as far back as 2007," there had been "no prior assaults by inmates with a yard tool at [the prison]." And "during the previous seven-year period, there [had] only been four incidents"-three with a broom and one with a mop.


         Jason filed a § 1983 suit asserting violations of his Eighth Amendment rights. He sued:

• Shane Ladner, Lieutenant at the prison;
• Bradley Pierce, Sergeant Master at the prison;
• Robert Tanner, Warden of the prison; and
• James LeBlanc, Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections.

         As to Ladner and Pierce, Jason claims they were deliberately indifferent to his safety. And as to Tanner and Bradley, Jason claims that they failed to properly train prison officers.

         The defendants moved for summary judgment, asserting qualified immunity. The district court granted Secretary LeBlanc qualified immunity. But it denied qualified immunity to Ladner, Pierce, and Tanner.

         For Ladner and Pierce, the district court found that they had subjective knowledge of the risk in handing out sling blades to inmates. The court also held that "even if Defendant Pierce and Defendant Ladner did not have subjective knowledge of the substantial and obvious risk posed by handing out potentially dangerous tools to inmates without appropriate supervision, the risk was so obvious that they should have known." And the court determined that they were deliberately indifferent because they did not show that a prison official "had a direct line of sight and was actually looking at all inmates while they used restricted tools" at all times.

         For Tanner, the district court found that there was a material dispute about how many minutes of training Pierce and Ladner received; and so whether they were adequately trained. The district court held that this potential lack of training would've caused the attack because the officers "lacked basic knowledge about the [tool policy]." And finally, the court held that under the "single incident exception," there was a material dispute about whether Tanner's failure to train his officers was so "obviously likely to lead to an assault" that it constitutes deliberate indifference.

         Ladner, Pierce, and Tanner appeal the denial of qualified immunity.


         "The denial of a motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity is immediately appealable notwithstanding that such denial was premised upon the existence of 'material issues of fact.'"[1] We have jurisdiction to review only the district court's legal analysis of qualified immunity.[2]

         We review the denial of qualified immunity de novo.[3] In doing so, we assess the scope of established rights and the reasonableness of officer conduct.[4] Summary judgment is appropriate only if "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law."[5] In reviewing, we consider only "the scope of clearly established law and the objective reasonableness" of the defendant's acts (as determined by the district court).[6] As we've explained, we "can review the materiality of any factual disputes, but not their genuineness."[7]

         Materiality challenges "contend[] that taking all the plaintiff's factual allegations as true no violation of a clearly established right was shown."[8] And we must view the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.[9]


         As the Supreme Court explained in Harlow, government officials have a right to qualified immunity when carrying out their duties.[10] But that immunity is not absolute. Plaintiffs can go to trial if they show that the official violated their clearly established right.[11] In other words, it's a two-prong test- (1) whether the official violated a right; and (2) whether that right was clearly established.

         The constitutional right here is the Eighth Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment. As the Supreme Court explained in Farmer[12] and as we reiterated in Williams, "prison officials have a duty to protect prisoners from violence at the hands of other prisoners."[13] For claims against officials who failed to adequately protect an inmate and who failed to train, ...

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