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Supreme Court Quietly Hammers Fifth Circuit in Conditions of Confinement Case, Reversing Qualified Immunity Ruling

Written by: Phillip E. Friduss, Esq.

This past Monday, in a per curiam decision (Justice Barrett not participating; Justice Alito concurring to suggest cert should not have been granted, but otherwise concurring with the judgment; and, Justice Thomas, dissenting without written opinion) the Supreme Court reversed and remanded a Fifth Circuit conditions of confinement qualified immunity grant of summary judgment. Taylor v. Rijas,.  Docket No. 19-1261. Short on analysis, the Opinion quickly and quietly goes nostalgic on us, utilizing Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U. S. 730, 741 (2002) to reach its quick, staccato decision. The Opinion is 2 ¼ pages in brevity. If you want any meat on the bones of the analysis, you’ll have to go to Alito’s concurrence, which is a matter of stick and move all unto itself.

The Fifth Circuit had held that the following facts did not give fair notice to the jailers that what they were doing was constitutionally offensive:

[For six (6) days, jailers] confined Taylor “in a pair of shockingly unsanitary cells. The first cell was covered, nearly floor to ceiling, in “‘massive amounts’ of feces” all over the floor, the ceiling, the window, the walls, and even “‘packed inside the water faucet.’”

…Correctional officers then moved Taylor to a second, frigidly cold cell, which was equipped with only a clogged drain in the floor to dispose of bodily wastes. Taylor held his bladder for over 24 hours, but he eventually (and involuntarily) relieved himself, causing the drain to overflow and raw sewage to spill across the floor. Because the cell lacked a bunk, and because Taylor was confined without clothing, he was left to sleep naked in sewage.

The Fifth Circuit had ruled the conditions violated the Eighth Amendment, but got hung up on a Fifth Circuit case that found no violation in a somewhat equivalent case involving only three days of confinement, hence not being similar enough on the facts to warrant stripping qualified immunity from the jailers.. Quickly, silently, and swiftly, the Supreme Court disagreed. Here is a link to the decision: https://www.scotusblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/taylor-v-riojas.pdf