People For the American Way

Trump Judges Dismiss Appeal Concerning Deliberate Indifference to Medical Needs as Frivolous Without Any Written or Oral Argument: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

News and Analysis
Trump Judges Dismiss Appeal Concerning Deliberate Indifference to  Medical Needs as Frivolous Without Any Written or Oral Argument:  Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears
Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, December 4, 2019

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 Eleventh Circuit judges Elizabeth Branch and Andrew Brasher reached out on their own to dismiss as frivolous an indigent incarcerated man’s appeal concerning the alleged deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs, without even considering any written briefs or oral argument.  The July 2021 decision was in Irizarry v Secretary, Fla. Dept. of Corrections, 2021 U.S. App. Lexis 21847 (11th Cir. July 22, 2021).

Christopher Irizarry tripped and broke his ankle while working at a Florida state work camp. A complaint that he later filed on his own stated that he immediately fell to the ground and was “screaming because of the pain.” He asked an officer on the scene to immediately call 911, and contends that other officials “urged” that as well, especially since Irizarry’s “bone was exposed.” The officer instead called a nurse at the medical unit for advice, and rather than calling 911, she sent other medical staff to the scene, which took 20-30 minutes, and only then was a 911 call made. Altogether, it took 1-2 hours until Irizarry received any medical assistance, during which time he continued to suffer pain and “mental trauma” and temporarily blacked out.

Irizarry filed a federal court complaint, contending that prison officials, particularly the nurse, violated the Eighth Amendment because they showed “deliberate indifference” to his “serious medical need” because of the unexplained delay in calling 911. The district court dismissed his complaint without any discovery, and he appealed to the Eleventh Circuit on his own, requesting that he be allowed to proceed without paying the $505 filing fee because he is indigent.

In an unsigned opinion, Trump judges Branch and Brasher not only required that Irizarry pay the filing fee but also decided on their own to dismiss the case as failing to state a proper legal claim, without written briefs or argument. According to Branch and Brasher, the appeal was “frivolous” because although broken bones are “serious medical needs,” the delay before calling 911 as alleged by Irizarry “does not rise to the level of deliberate indifference.”

Judge Beverly Martin strongly dissented. Initially, she took exception to the procedure used by Branch and Brasher, pointing out that the court would “allow paying parties who have failed to state a claim to have their appeals briefed and decided with a more fulsome opinion,” while poor people like Irizarry “get a different caliber of justice” through the type of peremptory dismissal that occurred here. On the merits, she pointed out, Branch and Brasher’s decision contradicted previous Eleventh Circuit precedent, which specifically ruled that unexplained and  “deliberately indifferent delay” in treating a broken foot, “no matter how brief,” can give rise to liability for deliberate indifference to serious medical needs under the Eighth Amendment.

Instead of getting a chance to prove his claims, Martin concluded, Christopher Irizarry “leaves our Court with unredressed injuries, a brief order telling him his case is frivolous, and a $505 fee to pay.” The case is yet another example of Trump judges like Brasher and Branch failing to accord proper respect to the rights of incarcerated people like Irizarry to prompt treatment for serious medical needs, and is another demonstration, as part of our fight for our courts, of the importance of the Senate confirming Biden-nominated judges to the Eleventh Circuit and elsewhere who will show respect to such important rights.