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Eleventh Circuit affirms summary judgment for defendants in civil rights case brought by Alabama prison inmate against prison employees, rules that inmate’s “generalized risk” of attack in cell block did not constitute substantial risk of serious harm to which the defendants were deliberately indifferent

On August 29, 2019, in Marbury v, Warden, et al, No. 17-12589, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed an Alabama U.S. district court’s summary judgment in favor of the defendants in a civil rights case under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The case was brought by a prison inmate against an officer in his cell block and the prison warden at Alabama’s St. Clair Correctional Facility. The plaintiff alleged that both defendants had been deliberately indifferent to a substantial risk to his safety involving a physical threat by an anonymous third party that had been relayed to the plaintiff by a fellow inmate, as well as a generalized risk posed by what the plaintiff described as violent gang related activity on his cell block, including fifteen inmate-on-inmate stabbings witnessed by the plaintiff. The plaintiff alleged that he had communicated these concerns to the defendants and had asked to be moved from the cell block, but nothing was done. He was subsequently stabbed in the prison dayroom. The district court dismissed the case based on the defendants’ qualified immunity, which protects government officials performing discretionary functions from suit in their individual capacities unless their conduct violates “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.’’ Gonzalez v. Reno, 325 F.3d 1228, 1233 (11th Cir. 2003) (quoting Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 739 (2002)). On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit stated that to establish a § 1983 claim for deliberate indifference, a plaintiff must show “(1) a substantial risk of serious harm; (2) the defendants’ deliberate indifference to that risk; and (3) causation.” The Court also stated that “[i]n general, a plaintiff must show more than a generalized awareness of risk” to make out a deliberate-indifference claim, and where a climate of generalized violence is involved, the plaintiff must show that “serious inmate-on-inmate violence was the norm or something close to it.” The Court noted that there was no evidence in the record of the total prison population or the sections of the prison in which the previous attacks described by the plaintiff occurred that would place the plaintiff’s statement in context, nor was it precisely clear from the record over what period of time these incidents occurred. Regarding the plaintiff’s allegation of a specific threat against him, the Eleventh Circuit held that the vague and anonymous nature of this threat did not rise to the level of proof necessary to support a reasonable finding that the defendants had a subjective awareness that the plaintiff was in serious danger. Writing in dissent, Judge Rosenbaum stated: “[we] do not sentence people to be stabbed and beaten. But we might as well if the Majority Opinion is correct.”