“Our Courts, Our Fight” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties and the need for the Senate to confirm President Biden’s federal court nominees to help counteract these effects . Supreme and appellate court cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Trump Sixth Circuit judge John Nalbandian, joined by Trump judge Joan Larsen, reversed a district court ruling by another Trump judge and held that a Kentucky corrections official should be granted immunity without even any discovery in a case charging that he was responsible for policies that led to the death of a man suffering from lung cancer within a month of his arrest. The October 2021 decision was in Crawford v Tilley.
Marc Crawford was arrested in 2017 in connection with his alleged involvement in and leaving the scene of an auto accident in Madison County, Kentucky. When he was arrested, his wife Dawn informed officers that he was suffering from acute lung cancer and would need immediate medical attention. When he was transferred to Kentucky State Reformatory (KSR) a week later, he was suffering from “an elevated heart rate, difficulty breathing, and swelling in his leg.” Despite statements to his attorney when he was transferred that Crawford would receive all prescribed medications and appropriate care, and despite complaints of pain, “healthcare workers withheld his prescribed medication, breathing treatments, and chemotherapy,” even though Dawn had specifically mentioned the importance of continued chemotherapy treatments when Marc was arrested. Marc died of cancer within a month of his arrest, before he even was seen by an oncologist.
Dawn Crawford filed suit against Kentucky officials and others who she contended were responsible for her husband’s death. Among others, she named James Erwin, the Commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Corrections. As explained in the district court decision, the complaint contended that Crawford was a “victim of a health care model used in Kentucky’s correctional facilities” that “runs counter to national standards and falls far short” of meeting the “critical medical needs” of incarcerated people. In particular, the complaint continued, state officials and their contractors use “unconstitutional policies, practices, and customs,” including use of licensed practical nurses with little supervision instead of physicians, causing people like Marc Crawford to “suffer constitutional deprivations” concerning health care services.
The complaint also alleged that there were “dozens of lawsuits” before Crawford’s death by families of people who had died while in state custody, as well as a CNN report, that documented the “unconstitutional medical treatment, policies, and practices,” of which Erwin and other state officials were fully aware and, “in deliberate indifference to the health and safety” of people like Crawford, failed to correct. The complaint specifically maintained that Erwin “helped promulgate” and “endorsed” the defective policies and practices, that he “was aware” that they “resulted in constitutionally deficient care” but “did nothing to correct them,” that he “knowingly acquiesced” in subordinates’ unconstitutional conduct, and that he personally “made the decision” to accept Crawford into KSR knowing of his medical issues. As a result, the complaint explained, Erwin was personally responsible in part for the violation of Crawford’s Eighth Amendment rights because of the deliberate indifference and unconstitutional lack of medical treatment that helped cause his death.
Nevertheless, Erwin filed a motion to dismiss the complaint against him on qualified immunity grounds, without even any discovery, arguing that the allegations of supervisory liability against him were insufficient. Judge Claria Boom, who had been nominated by Trump in early 2017, wrote a thorough opinion denying the motion. The judge pointed out that the complaint relied on much “more than a superficial reference” to Erwin’s supervisory responsibility, but specifically contended that he had “helped promulgate” and “endorsed” the “very policies” that allegedly led to Crawford’s death and “personally made the decision” to accept him into KSR knowing his medical condition and the deficient policies that he “did nothing” to correct. The judge noted that discovery and later events could lead to a different decision, but that Dawn Crawford had “done enough” in her complaint to move to the next stage of the litigation. This was especially true, the judge wrote, because accepted Sixth Circuit caselaw required that it “accept the allegations” in the complaint “as true” and “draw all reasonable inferences in favor” of her at this stage, and that granting a motion to dismiss without discovery based on qualified immunity “is disfavored at this stage.”
On appeal, however, Trump judges Nalbandian and Larsen (joined by a judge nominated by President George W Bush), reversed the district court and ruled that Erwin was entitled to have the compliant against him dismissed based on qualified immunity. The panel specifically disagreed with prior Sixth Circuit precedent and claimed that there should be no “presumptions against granting motions to dismiss” based on qualified immunity, maintaining that it was important to help government officials even “avoid pre-trial discovery” where the lawsuit against them is “insubstantial.” Despite the district court’s careful analysis, Nalbandian’s opinion claimed that the allegations against Erwin were merely “conclusory” and were insufficient to allege that he had “proximately caused” the “alleged violation” of Crawford’s constitutional rights. This was despite the fact that the complaint had specifically alleged that Erwin helped to “promulgate” the policies at issue and, without discovery, it would be next to impossible to demonstrate more specific involvement.
The ruling by Nalbandian and Larsen does much more than deprive Dawn Crawford of possible justice for unconstitutional conduct by a key state official that contributed to her husband’s death. It also makes it much easier for government officials generally to completely avoid responsibility for, or even pre-trial discovery to help uncover, such unconstitutional actions that harm people’s rights. The case helps illustrate the importance, as part of our fight for our courts, of confirming fair-minded judges who will protect people’s rights as against improper conduct by government officials.