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Excerpted From: Samantha Das, Constitutional Law--Black Prisoner Denied Medical Attention: Eighth Amendment Rights Violation Versus Inherent Biases in Medical Racism--Sherman V. Corcella, 2020 U.s. Dist. Lexis 125931 (D. Conn. 2020), 17 Journal of Health & Biomedical Law 295 (2021) (Comment) (71 Footnotes) (Full Document)


SamanthaDasUnder the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution, it is prohibited for a prisoner to experience deliberate indifference to their serious medical needs by any employer or agent of a correctional facility. However, the burden is on the prisoner to show that the alleged deprivation is sufficiently serious and the defendant acted with a “sufficiently culpable state of mind.” In Sherman v. Corcella, the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut considered whether the Connecticut Department of Correction (“DOC”) failed to provide adequate medical treatment to a prisoner suffering from arthritis and degenerated bone loss in his spine, shoulders, and other limbs. The court found that Sherman's Eighth Amendment claim may proceed, but only with specific DOC officials as defendants who had actual knowledge of Sherman's pain.

Frank Melvin Sherman is a fifty-four-year-old African American male who is currently incarcerated at the Connecticut DOC. Sherman suffers from chronic arthritis and “degenerated bone loss”, causing partial paralysis in his right shoulder and causing him to experience “extreme pain”, sometimes unbearable. Consequently, Sherman brought suit against defendants Warden Anthony Corcella, Dr. Mahboob, Advanced Practitioner Registered Nurse Dawn Lee, Nurse Supervisor Kara Phillips, Registered Nurse (“RN”) Carla Ocampo, Lieutenant John Doe Ballaro, RN Michael McDonald, RN Janine Brennan, RN Donna Adams-Conahan, and Corrections Officers Jane Doe Sagan, John Doe Griggs, and Jane Doe Diaz for failing to provide Sherman adequate medical treatment. Specifically, defendants Dr. Ashraf, Nurse Lee, Supervisor Phillips and Nurse Ocampo allegedly failed to treat Sherman's arthritis, separated shoulder, and second-degree burn on his foot by providing him with ineffective pain medication. As a result, Sherman sought accommodations for his shoulder and arthritis pain by requesting to wear a button down shirt instead of a pullover sweater, as well as requesting a permanent bottom bunk and a double mattress, but these requests were denied by all four defendants. Sherman continued to endure pain and told Nurse Lee that because he was forced to put on his pullover sweater when he had an arm sling, he experienced “cruel and unusual punishment.” Despite Sherman repeatedly complaining about his pain, the medical staff still refused any accommodations and requests for a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (“M.R.I.”) scan or an appointment with a bone specialist until July 23, 2019, when Sherman suffered a seizure. The seizure knocked Sherman unconcious and only then did DOC officials bring him to the hospital to receive a head scan and x-rays.

On August 31, 2019, Sherman was making coffee when his untreated right arm gave out, causing him to spill boiling water on his foot resulting in second-degree burn. To mitigate the pain from the burn, Sherman asked for pain medication, but Nurse McDonald only gave him Tylenol and Bacitracin and told him his foot was “all right.” Soon after, Sherman requested a bucket to soak his feet and a sneaker pass or medical order to purchase shock absorbent sneakers, but again the defendants denied the requests without providing an explanation. Dr. Ashraf, Supervisor Phillips, and Nurse Lee never examined Sherman's feet nor questioned his symptoms of numbness, pain, and stiffness from his untreated arthritis, degenerated bone loss, and shoulder separation. Sherman alleges that he had an “on-going battle” with medical staff who refused to treat him, which Sherman also wrote up for harassment and violations of employee conduct. On September 3, 2019, Sherman was in his cell taking a sponge bath when Officer Diaz and Lieutenant Ballaro dragged Sherman by his arms, despite Sherman asking the correctional officers to be careful of his shoulders, in order to take him to a “Behavioral Observation” cell. On that same day, Nurse Adams-Conahan allegedly threw Band-Aids at Sherman for his burned foot and did not provide additional treatment or medical attention.

In addition to having his medical needs ignored, Sherman suffered from racial discrimination and property destruction by Officers Sagon and Griggs. First, on April 9, 2019, Officer Sagon allegedly tore up Sherman's photographs of his deceased mother, father, and sister, and eight days later, Sherman learned that Officer Griggs also partook in destroying more property in his cell. When asked why Officer Griggs destroyed his property, Officer Griggs responded that Sherman disrespected Officer Sagon and then called Sherman a derogatory slur: “nigga.” Later, in August 2019, Nurse Brennan allegedly would not process Sherman's medical grievances without an inmate request--a request form that allows prisoners to advocate their subjective needs to the DOC. Sherman argues that Nurse Brennan participated in denying him access to the courts and prevented him from protecting his rights. The District Court found claims against six out of the twelve defendants for violating Sherman's Eighth Amendment rights regarding the deliberate indifference to his arthritis, degenerated bone loss, and the second-degree burn on his foot, while dismissing the case against the other DOC officials because they did not have sufficient knowledge of Sherman's pain.

The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners, whether that is manifested through the actions or inactions of prison officials. Under the Eighth Amendment, two requirements must be met, the objective and subjective standards, in order to find that prison officials intentionally denied or delayed a prisoner's access to medical care. Under the objective requirement, the inmate must establish that the deprivation of their medical care was sufficiently serious and there was an unreasonable risk of serious damage to the prisoner's health. To determine if the deprivation of medical care is sufficiently serious, the prisoner must actually be deprived of the adequate care and show that the inadequacy in medical care was sufficiently serious. The subjective requirement entails that the charged official acted with a “culpable state of mind.” The prisoner must establish that the defendant knew of the inmate's medical needs and disregarded an excessive risk to the prisoner's health or safety.

Courts recognize that when analyzing an Eighth Amendment violation, mere negligence is not enough to establish a constitutional violation, even if it counts as medical malpractice. When establishing an Eighth Amendment violation, deliberate indifference to medical needs is not the disagreement over proper treatment; as long as the treatment given is adequate, regardless if the prisoner prefers a different treatment plan, there is no constitutional violation. This bartering process for adequate treatment mirrors that of other legislation, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Eighth Amendment also prohibits unnecessary confinement and excessive force. Similar to the deliberate indifference to serious medical needs, a two-element test is applied when determining confinements that constitute “cruel and unusual punishment.” With regard to confinement, the prisoner must objectively demonstrate that the confinement resulted in “unquestioned and serious deprivations of basic human needs” and subjectively show that the DOC official acted with a sufficiently “culpable state of mind.” In terms of excessive force, the prisoner must only objectively establish that the force used was excessive.

Although these claims were not brought, Sherman could have also tried to bring a suit under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment for disparate treatment by the correctional officers, particularly when the guard called him a racial slur. Another remedy Sherman could have sought was a violation of the Model Sentencing and Corrections Act, which also protects interests in freedom from discrimination based on race. Section 2-501 of the Model Sentencing and Corrections Act requires divisions of correctional medical services to diagnose and treat the physical, dental, or mental health problems of confined individuals. Under the Model Act, if a prisoner has been discriminated against because of their race the option exists for them to seek a violation against the defendant.

In Sherman v. Corcella, the court first examined whether Sherman's arthritis and bone degeneration satisfies the objective requirement as a serious medical condition. To make this determination, the court considered these factors: (1) whether a reasonable doctor or patient would perceive the medical need in question as worthy of treatment; (2) whether the medical condition affects daily activities; and (3) whether there is the existence of chronic pain. The court found that Sherman's arthritis and degenerated bone loss are chronic and existed before he arrived at the Correctional Center. The court also reasoned there is sufficient evidence to satisfy the objective requirement because a doctor would reasonably consider Sherman's condition to be treatment-worthy and his condition impedes on his daily activities since he is unable to dress himself or sleep due to the chronic pain. Next, Sherman must also satisfy the subjective element, and the court justly found that Supervisor Phillips, Nurse Lee, and Lieutenant Ballaro deliberately disregarded the medical needs for Sherman's health conditions. As a supervisor, Supervisor Phillips had personal notice of Sherman's need for treatment and showed deliberate indifference by failure to address his specific medical needs. Nurse Lee and Lieutenant Ballaro also had personal notice of Sherman's need for treatment since Nurse Lee intentionally took away Sherman's arm sling when Lieutenant Ballaro wrongfully indicated to Nurse Lee that there was nothing wrong with Sherman's shoulder.

In analyzing Sherman's second-degree burn, the court decided to treat it as if it satisfied the objective element. Because Sherman alleged that there was a delay in treatment, the court considered this deprivation of care as a possible risk of harm. The court found that the actions of both Nurse McDonald and Nurse Adams-Conahan were a deliberate disregard to Sherman's serious medical needs because Nurse McDonald failed to provide his promised treatments to Sherman and Nurse Adams-Conahan only provided Band-Aids, which contributed to an infection. The court, however, did not find a claim against Supervisor Phillips, Nurse Lee, or Dr. Ashraf for Sherman's untreated second-degree burn because Sherman did not provide sufficient evidence that his request for treatment affected his feet and constituted as deliberate indifference to a serious medical need.

In evaluating the court's analysis of the two-prong test in deciding whether the defendants deliberately disregarded Sherman's serious medical needs, in violation of the Eighth Amendment, the court incorrectly applied the subjective standard and should have applied a more expansive and consistent approach. First, the court states that Sherman did not provide enough evidence that Nurse Ocampo knew that removal of Sherman's sling would pose a substantial risk of harm, however, Nurse Ocampo was with Nurse Lee when his sling was removed, and the court found Nurse Lee liable. They both made the decision to remove the sling, but the only difference between Nurse Ocampo and Nurse Lee in this situation, is that Nurse Lee specifically stated she was not going against custody for Sherman. Nurse Ocampo also knew of Sherman's pain because of Sherman's multiple requests for a no-shirt pass. The court was inconsistent when finding Sherman met the two-prong test against Nurse Lee, but not with Nurse Ocampo, which is why the court should have adopted a more expansive and consistent approach.

Second, the court erroneously found that Dr. Ashraf did not deliberately disregard Sherman's serious medical needs. The court reasoned that Sherman failed to provide facts that Dr. Ashraf was actually aware of his needs, but the court was inconsistent with its reasonings because during his time at the correctional facility, Sherman told Dr. Ashraf, Nurse Ocampo, Nurse Lee, and Supervisor Phillips about his arthritis and provided evidence on how they refused an arm sling pass for his separated shoulder. The subjective element requires that the charged official is aware of the substantial risk, and based on Sherman's allegations, this should have been enough to prove that Dr. Ashraf was aware.

[. . .]

When analyzing the court's determination of whether all the defendants were deliberately indifferent to Sherman's medical needs, the court failed to take into consideration outside factors that may have biased the defendants during Sherman's treatment. Based on what is required for a plaintiff to be successful under an Eighth Amendment violation claim, the court solely looks to the two-prong test, involving objective and subjective elements, but does not recognize any other public policy issues involving race, such as medical racism. Sherman is an African American male and based on the alleged facts, has faced racial discrimination in the Correctional Facility by at least one officer who called him the n-word. There has been a long standing history of African Americans not receiving proper medical care due to the color of their skin. The court should adopt a more expansive view when determining whether a defendant deliberately disregards the serious medical needs of a person of color, due to the possible biases that are developed in healthcare professionals when treating people of color. Although in this particular case there were no facts indicating that the nurses or doctor had any racial bias towards Sherman's medical treatment, their actions could suggest otherwise. In the future, courts should consider this factor in an Eighth Amendment violation because of the growing problem people of color face every day. For instance, black people represent only 13.4% of the U.S. adult population, but 38.6% of people in prison are black, displaying inequality and injustice towards people of color.

In Sherman v. Corcella, the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut considered whether the DOC failed to provide adequate medical treatment to a prisoner with arthritis, degenerated bone loss, and second-degree burn. In its application of the relevant legal principles, the court misapplied the subjective standard with certain medical staff members by inconsistently finding some medical providers liable for deliberate indifference to the prisoner's medical needs, while dismissing the case on others, when the facts were analogous. The court also failed to recognize the prisoner's circumstances as an African American male - already facing discrimination from the officers with the use of a racial slur. Ultimately, the court ignores the possibility of the defendant's disregarding Sherman's medical needs due to his race. Although the plaintiff did not make a specific claim against racial discrimination, this should be an issue addressed by courts in Eighth Amendment violations.

J.D. Candidate, Suffolk University Law School, 2022; B.A., University of Massachusetts Amherst, 201Fo

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