“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 judge Michael Park authored an opinion rejecting a New York prisoner’s claim that woefully inadequate medical treatment he received for a painful dental condition amounted to deliberate indifference and violated his constitutional rights. In the September 2021 opinion, Darby v. Greenman, Park summarily dismissed the complaint even before any discovery, leaving the prisoner with no legal remedy for clearly inadequate dental care that caused him significant pain over the course of a year.
Devin Darby began experiencing gum inflammation in February 2020, which grew progressively worse. Over the next six months, Darby filed approximately nineteen sick call requests and four grievance complaints about his worsening and painful condition. All these complaints went directly to prison officials.
During this time, Darby primarily saw two dentists at Riker’s Island in New York. The first incorrectly suggested a tooth extraction, and the second refused to provide any treatment whatsoever beyond a basic cleaning. In June of 2020, prison officials finally transferred Darby to another facility where a specialist saw him. A year later he underwent gum surgery to remove what turned out to be a large gum abscess or infected bulge in his mouth, by which time he had suffered impaired speech and had lost 20 pounds, in addition to severe pain, inflammation, sleeplessness, and swelling.
Darby filed suit against unspecified prison officials and the two dentists, alleging that their “deliberate indifference” to his serious medical condition violated his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The lower court dismissed Darby’s claims without even allowing any discovery. Darby appealed.
Trump Judge Park wrote a 2-1 Second Circuit decision upholding the lower court’s dismissal of Darby’s claims. The majority maintained that while the dentists misdiagnosed and failed to properly treat Darby, he hadn’t sufficiently alleged that they showed “deliberate indifference” to his condition. The majority also held that since Darby failed to provide evidence that specific prison officials read his complaints, his claim of their deliberate indifference failed as well due to lack of specificity.
Judge Susan Carney firmly dissented. Carney stated that the dentists’ actions went beyond simple misdiagnosis because they proposed actions that were entirely non-responsive to Darby’s symptoms. Because a trained dentist clearly should have known otherwise, she went on, Darby had “plausibly alleged” a “conscious disregard” by the dentists of a “substantial risk of serious harm,” and the case should have gone forward according to prior Second Circuit precedent. In addition, Carney explained that Darby’s complaint provided sufficient detail of the dates and contents of his written complaints to allow his case to go forward against other prison officials. The fact that Darby could not allege specifically which prison officials in particular read his complaints is immaterial, given that his complaints were certainly read and repeatedly ignored. Finally, Carney wrote, the district court erred in dismissing Darby’s complaints before any of the prison officials had even been served, violating established precedent.
If the Second Circuit had granted Darby’s request for his complaint to go forward, Darby would have gained access to the discovery process where he could have questioned the dentists and prison officials. He may have been able to unearth how and why these individuals repeatedly ignored his complaints of mistreatment and gained compensation for his painful ordeal.
However, due to Trump Judge Park’s decision, Darby will never get this chance to prove that his rights were violated or gain compensation for his suffering. The city government, the prison system, and the individuals responsible will all likely avoid accountability. This case demonstrates the importance, as part of our fight for our courts, of the Senate confirming Biden nominees to the Second Circuit and elsewhere who will protect the constitutional rights of all, including the most vulnerable members of our society.
* The initial draft of this post was prepared by 2021 People For law student fellow Andrew Kliewer.