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Taylor v. Barkes

United States Supreme Court

June 1, 2015


Editorial Note:

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the printed official reporter.


Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan.


[135 S.Ct. 2043] [192 L.Ed.2d 79] PER CURIAM.

Christopher Barkes, " a troubled man with a long history of mental health and substance abuse problems," was arrested on November 13, 2004, for violating his probation. Barkes v. First Correctional Medical, Inc., 766 F.3d 307, 310-311 (CA3 2014). Barkes was taken to the Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington, Delaware. As part of Barkes's intake, a nurse who worked for the contractor providing healthcare at the Institution conducted a medical evaluation. Id., at 311.

The evaluation included a mental health screening designed in part to assess whether an inmate was suicidal. The nurse employed a suicide screening form based on a model form developed by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) in 1997. The form listed 17 suicide risk factors. If the inmate's responses and nurse's observations indicated that at least eight were present, or if certain serious risk factors were present, the nurse would notify a physician and initiate suicide prevention measures. Id., at 311, 313.

Barkes disclosed that he had a history of psychiatric treatment and was on medication. He also disclosed that he had attempted suicide in 2003, though not--as far as the record indicates--that he had also done so on [192 L.Ed.2d 80] three other occasions. And he indicated that he was not currently thinking about killing himself. Because only two risk factors were apparent, the nurse gave Barkes a " routine" referral to mental health services and did not initiate any special suicide prevention measures. Id., at 311.

Barkes was placed in a cell by himself. Despite what he had told the nurse, that evening he called his wife and told her that he " can't live this way anymore" and was going to kill himself. Barkes's wife did not inform anyone at the Institution of this call. The next morning, correctional officers observed Barkes awake and behaving normally at 10:45, 10:50, and 11:00 a.m. At 11:35 a.m., however, an officer arrived to deliver lunch and discovered that Barkes had hanged himself with a sheet. Id., at 311-312.

Barkes's wife and children, respondents here, brought suit under Rev. Stat. § 1979, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against various entities and individuals connected with the Institution, who they claimed had violated Barkes's civil rights in failing to prevent his suicide. At issue here is a claim against petitioners Stanley Taylor, Commissioner of the Delaware Department of Correction (DOC), and Raphael Williams, the Institution's warden. Although it is undisputed that neither petitioner had personally interacted with Barkes or knew of his condition before his death, respondents alleged that Taylor and Williams had violated Barkes's constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. Barkes v. First Correctional Medical, Inc., 2008 WL 523216, *7 (D Del., Feb. 27, 2008). They did so, according to respondents, by failing to supervise and monitor the private contractor that provided the medical treatment--including the intake screening--at the Institution. Petitioners moved for summary judgment on the ground that they were entitled to qualified immunity, but the District Court denied the motion. Barkes v. First Correctional Medical, Inc., 2012 WL 2914915, *8-*12 (D Del., July 17, 2012).

A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed. The majority first determined that respondents had alleged a cognizable theory of supervisory liability (a decision upon which we express no view). 766 F.3d, at 316-325. The majority then turned to the two-step [135 S.Ct. 2044] qualified immunity inquiry, asking " first, whether the plaintiff suffered a deprivation of a constitutional or statutory right; and second, if so, whether that right was 'clearly established' at the time of the alleged misconduct." Id., at 326.

Taking these questions in reverse order, the Third Circuit held that it was clearly established at the time of Barkes's death that an incarcerated individual had an Eighth Amendment " right to the proper implementation of adequate suicide prevention protocols." Id., at 327. The panel majority then concluded there were material factual disputes about whether petitioners had violated this right by failing to adequately supervise the contractor providing medical services at the prison. There was evidence, the majority noted, that the medical contractor's suicide screening process did not comply with NCCHC's latest standards, as required by the contract. Those standards allegedly called for a revised screening form and for screening by a qualified mental health professional, not a nurse. There was also evidence that the contractor did not [192 L.Ed.2d 81] have access to Barkes's probation records (which would have shed light on his mental health history), and that the contractor had been short-staffing to increase profits. Id., at 330-331.

Judge Hardiman dissented. As relevant here, he concluded that petitioners were entitled to qualified immunity because the right on which the majority relied was " a departure from Eighth Amendment case law that had never been established before today." Id., at 345.

Taylor and Williams petitioned for certiorari. We grant the petition and reverse on the ground that there was no ...

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