“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Trump Sixth Circuit judge Eric Murphy cast the deciding vote to affirm the dismissal of a prisoner’s claim that officials violated his constitutional rights by requiring him to work under unsanitary and dangerous conditions and by refusing to provide him with a religious diet. The July 2020 case is Betty v. McKee, 2020 US App, Lexis 22764 (July 21, 2020).
Quentin Betty is confined in a Michigan prison. Acting as his own lawyer, he filed a complaint against prison officials that included the contentions that: (1) officials had violated his Eighth amendment right to not suffer cruel and unusual punishment by requiring him to work in the kitchen under “unsanitary and dangerous conditions”, including refusing his requests for protective eyewear and other safeguards when he worked with “chemical hazards,” leading to chemical burns in his left eye; and (2) officials violated his First amendment rights by denying him and other prisoners a religious diet.
A lower court dismissed his claims and he appealed. On appeal, he filed a motion to have the case sent back to the district court so he could introduce new evidence. That motion was referred to a 3-judge panel, including Trump judge Murphy
Murphy provided the deciding vote in an unsigned 2-1 opinion to deny Betty’s motion and, acting on its own even though the issue was not before it, to dismiss the appeal completely and affirm the lower court. The majority stated that Betty’s claims concerning the kitchen hazards were insufficient because they showed at most that the officials were “negligent”, and Betty suffered only a “minor injury.” With respect to the religious diet claims, the majority stated that Betty’s complaint was “too vague and conclusory.”
Judge Eric Clay firmly dissented. Particularly in light if the “ required leniency” with which courts are to review filings of non-lawyers acting on their own, Clay explained that it was “simply wrong” for the court to completely dismiss Betty’s claims at this stage, and that they “plausibly allege” a violation of his constitutional rights.
With respect to the Eighth Amendment claim, Clay noted that Betty alleged that he “expressly and repeatedly” told officials about the conditions and his need for protective equipment but his complaints were “ignored.” At one point, Betty contended, when he asked one official for protective equipment, the official “laughed” and told him he did not need it. On another occasion, that official allegedly ignored a health inspector’s instruction to put an eye-washing sink into the kitchen. Overall, Clay concluded, Betty’s allegations “plausibly show” that the officials were “aware of Plaintiff’s exposure to a substantial risk of harm, such as chemical burn, and yet they were deliberately indifferent to the risk.”
With respect to the First Amendment claim, Clay acknowledged that the complaint could have been written “with more specificity,” but noted that this could be cured by amending the complaint once the prison responded on the merits. Clay pointed out that the majority had not specifically considered the merits of Betty’s request to send the case back to the district court so that he could “enter a letter from a corrections ombudsman that appears to confirm that cross contamination was occurring in the religious kitchen and that several other religious prisoners have made complaints.” At the very least, Clay explained, the case should have been remanded to allow the district court to consider the letter from the ombudsman
Clay concluded by quoting the Supreme Court and the Sixth Circuit as making clear that our legal system “remains committed to guaranteeing that prisoner claims of illegal conduct by their custodians are fairly handled according to law” and that “ensuring that claims are not thrown out before an adequate opportunity to consider their merit is essential to that guarantee.” Unfortunately, that is precisely what Murphy’s deciding vote prevented from happening in Betty’s case.