Qualified immunity and private employees

Civil rights

Qualified Immunity

We previously wrote here about the concept of qualified immunity in civil rights lawsuits. Often, qualified immunity will protect a government official in such suits.

Today we look at the question of whether qualified immunity extends to non-governmental employees. That question was recently addressed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Sanchez v. Oliver.

The facts of Sanchez

Eli Gauna, Jr., took his own life while being held in the Bell County jail as a pretrial detainee. His mother, Kathy Sanchez, sued—among others—licensed clinical social worker Natalee Oliver, the mental health professional who evaluated Gauna and took him off suicide watch.

Oliver was an employee of Correctional Healthcare Companies, LLC (“CHC”), which contracted with Bell County to provide healthcare services, including mental healthcare, to inmates, juveniles, and pretrial detainees in the County’s custody.

Gauna asked to be placed in the infirmary, but Oliver instead took him off suicide watch and placed him among the general population. She advised him to continue taking his medication, to stay active, and to inform staff if his mood declined.

Two days later, Gauna committed suicide by hanging.

Sanchez files suit.

Sanchez sued, both individually and on behalf of Gauna’s estate, alleging causes of action against Oliver, CHC, and Bell County under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violating Gauna’s well-established constitutional right to be protected from a known risk of suicide.

Oliver moved for summary judgment, claiming qualified immunity, and arguing that there was insufficient evidence that she had acted with deliberate indifference towards Gauna.

Sanchez argued that Oliver, as an employee of a private, for-profit service provider, was not entitled to assert the defense of qualified immunity.

The magistrate judge recommended finding that Oliver was entitled to qualified immunity, had not been deliberately indifferent, had not acted unreasonably (relative to the deliberate indifference standard), and was entitled to summary judgment.

The district court adopted the magistrate’s report and recommendation, and granted summary judgment for Oliver.

Sanchez appealed.

The Fifth Circuit reverses.

At the outset, the Fifth Circuit noted there was no question that Oliver, as a medical professional treating a pretrial detainee on behalf of a governmental entity, was acting under color of state law for purposes of § 1983.

“As a private actor, Oliver may be liable for acting under color of state law under § 1983, but it does not necessarily follow that she may assert qualified immunity.”

In holding that Oliver was entitled to assert the defense of qualified immunity, the district court relied heavily on the Fifth Circuit’s ruling in Perniciaro v. Lea that two private mental health providers employed by the state through Tulane University were entitled to qualified immunity.

“However, the Perniciaro court took pains to emphasize that Tulane University was not systematically organized to perform the major administrative task of providing mental-health care at state facilities.”

By contrast, Oliver’s employer, CHC, was—according to its marketing materials—a major corporation “in the business of administering correctional health care services.”

In other words, Oliver’s employer was “systematically organized to perform the major administrative task of providing mental-health care at state facilities.”

The Fifth Circuit concluded: “After considering the historical tradition of immunity at common law around the time § 1983 was enacted and the policy considerations underlying qualified immunity, we agree with our sister circuits that Oliver—as an employee of a large firm systematically organized to perform the major administrative task of providing mental healthcare at state facilities—is categorically ineligible for qualified immunity.“

Even so, the district court’s ruling could still be upheld if Oliver was not deliberately indifferent and, therefore, not liable under § 1983 for violating Gauna’s Fourteenth Amendment rights, since that finding could independently dispose of Sanchez’s Fourteenth Amendment claims.

Although the district court made such a finding, the Fifth Circuit concluded that it was error because there were genuine issues of material fact to be resolved by the factfinder.

S. Craig Panter

Panter Law Firm, PLLC, 7736 Old Canton Road, Suite B, Madison, MS 39110