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Biden Judge Writes Unanimous Ruling Allowing Family of Woman Who Died While in Detention to Pursue Claims of Liability Against Prison Medical Official

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News & Analysis

Judge Andre Mathis, nominated by President Biden to the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, wrote a unanimous decision that reversed a district court and allowed the family of a woman who died suddenly while in pre-trial detention for alleged burglary to pursue a claim for deprivation of her constitutional rights by a jail official.  The June 2023 decision was in Mercer v. Athens County.

 

What is this Case About?

 Jennifer Ohlinger was arrested for alleged burglary and brought to a a regional jail while charges were pending. Several days later, she struck her head, briefly lost consciousness, and urinated on herself. She also had a history of seizures. The jail nurse ordered a blood draw and gave her ibuprofen “instead of sending her to the hospital” or to see a doctor as “required” by jail guidelines. A day later, another prisoner found her unresponsive and called for assistance, but she died. The cause of death was listed as seizure activity.

 Ohlinger’s daughter, Kelsea Mercer, filed suit against jail officials, seeking damages on behalf of the family for violation of Ohlinger’s constitutional rights and wrongful death. The district court granted summary judgment without trial to the jail officials, including James Gray, the jail nurse.  Mercer appealed.

 

 How did Judge Mathis and the Sixth Circuit Rule and Why is it Important?

 Judge Mathis wrote a unanimous opinion that reversed the district court’s judgment in favor of Gray, sending the case against him back so that Mercer could go forward with the case against him. “Incarcerated persons” like Jennifer Ohlinger, Mathis explained, have a “constitutional right to protection” from jail officials “showing deliberate indifference to their serious medical needs,” and the evidence clearly created a “genuine dispute of material fact” on that claim against Gray.

 In fact, after reviewing the evidence, including Gray’s admission that he “should have consulted a physician,” Judge Mathis concluded that “a reasonable jury could find” that Gray “acted recklessly, not negligently, in the face of an unjustifiable risk to Ohlinger’s health.” Based on recent precedent, Mathis made clear, recklessness is clearly sufficient in the  case of someone who has not been convicted and is being held before trial. Gray also argued he should get qualified immunity from any lawsuit because he was acting as a government employee, but that was rejected on similar grounds.

 The Sixth Circuit’s decision is obviously important in helping the family of Jennifer Ohlinger obtain justice and accountability for her death. In addition, the ruling makes clear more generally that reckless misconduct by jail or prison officials is sufficient to render them liable and eliminate the defense of qualified immunity when it comes to pre-trial detainees. The holding  is also yet another illustration of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded Biden nominees like Judge Mathis to our federal courts.