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Florida man contests qualified immunity after infection from forced exposure to human feces

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The Petitions of the Week column highlights a selection of cert petitions recently filed in the Supreme Court. A list of all petitions we’re watching is available here.

The judge-made doctrine of qualified immunity generally shields government officials from liability unless they violate “clearly established” law. This week, we highlight cert petitions that ask the court to consider, among other things, whether a prison official is entitled to qualified immunity after he forced an elderly diabetic man into a shower filled with feces and then prevented him from cleaning his open wounds for a week.

In 2018, then 67-year-old Lynn Hamlet was incarcerated in the Martin Correctional Institution, a state prison in southern Florida. After waking from a diabetic coma, Hamlet was caught sneaking a bag of rice out of the prison cafeteria. Hamlet contends that he was involved in a long-running dispute with the prison guard who discovered that he had taken the rice; the guard, Hamlet says, had him placed in solitary confinement after the two exchanged words.

A week later, Hamlet was allowed to use the handicapped shower. As the water level in the shower rose, Hamlet noticed a potato-chip bag filled with human feces and urine floating on the surface. He asked Officer Brandon Hoxie, who had escorted him to the shower, to let him out of the shower to avoid exposing the open wounds on his ankles, a result of his diabetes, to the feces and urine. Hamlet alleges that Officer Hoxie instead accused him of being the source of the feces and urine and, after initially letting him out of the shower, forced him back inside for another 30 to 40 minutes.

When Hamlet returned to his cell, he found that Hoxie had taken away his sheets and clean clothes; he also barred Hamlet from showering for another week. Meanwhile, Hamlet tried to wash the feces from his ankles with the only tool remaining in his cell: water from the toilet bowl. Unable to clean his wounds, Hamlet became ill and and eventually ended up in the hospital, where he received his first shower since the incident. Ultimately, a severe bacterial infection compromised a valve in Hamlet’s heart, requiring emergency surgery and a lengthy hospital stay.

Hamlet went to court, arguing that Hoxie had violated his Eighth Amendment right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment by exposing him to feces in the shower and preventing him from cleaning his wounds for a week afterwards. A federal district court in Florida ruled for Hoxie.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for 11th Circuit affirmed. The court held that Hoxie was entitled to qualified immunity because he did not violate a clearly established right. Hamlet had pointed to a prior 11th Circuit decision denying qualified immunity to a prison officer who refused to remove a man’s waist chains for two days and then made him sit in his own excrement while preventing nurses from cleaning him. The 11th Circuit concluded, however, that Hoxie could not reasonably have known that decision prohibited his conduct towards Hamlet because his exposure to feces in the shower “was different in both degree and kind.”

In Hamlet v. Hoxie, Hamlet asks the justices to grant review and reverse the 11th Circuit’s ruling. He argues that there is a long history of court decisions, both in the 11th Circuit and around the country, establishing that prolonged exposure to human feces while in custody is unconstitutional. But even if that right was not clearly established, Hamlet contends, the Supreme Court has recently ruled that prison officials who forced a man to spend six days naked in cells contaminated with human feces and sewage were not entitled to qualified immunity because – regardless of whether they had violated a clearly established right – the man’s treatment was so glaringly egregious. Hamlet argues that the same reasoning should apply to his case.

A list of this week’s featured petitions is below:

Foremost Title & Escrow Services, LLC v. FCOA, LLC
Issue: Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit is correct to relieve an incontestable trademark-holder of its burden to prove that its mark is strong and likely to be confused with a junior mark.

Coinbase, Inc. v. Suski
Issue: Whether, where parties enter into an arbitration agreement with a delegation clause, an arbitrator or a court should decide whether that arbitration agreement is narrowed by a later contract that is silent as to arbitration and delegation.

Hamlet v. Hoxie
Issues: (1) Whether it is “clearly established” for purposes of qualified immunity that the Eighth Amendment bars a prison official from forcing a person with diabetes and open wounds to endure prolonged and unnecessary exposure to feces; and (2) whether the court should overrule Procunier v. Navarette and hold that qualified immunity under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 does not extend to a suit alleging that a prison guard subjected the plaintiff to unlawful conditions of confinement, because similar state officials were not immune from similar suits at common law.

Recommended Citation: Kalvis Golde, Florida man contests qualified immunity after infection from forced exposure to human feces, SCOTUSblog (Aug. 1, 2023, 7:43 AM),