(CN) – The 9th Circuit revived a former inmate’s lawsuit against Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca over a vicious, racially tinged jailhouse beating that the inmate claims happened with the aid and approval of Baca’s deputies.
Dion Starr alleged that in 2006, while he was in custody in the Los Angeles County Jail, a deputy unlocked his cell so that a group of inmates could enter and stab him 23 times. After the attack, while Starr lay bleeding on the cell floor, several deputies watched as he moaned and writhed, and one deputy yelled, “Shut up, nigger,” repeatedly and kicked Starr several times in the face and body, according to a ruling published Friday.
Starr sued Baca and the deputies involved in the incident, claiming that the conditions at the jail violated the Eighth and 14th Amendments. He argued that Baca was liable for the actions of his deputies because he had a history of showing indifference to the dangerous conditions at the L.A. County Jail.
But a District Court disagreed and dismissed the claims against Baca, finding that Starr had failed to show a connection between the sheriff’s actions, or lack thereof, and the attack.
In a 2-1 ruling, the federal appeals panel in Pasadena reversed the lower court’s decision. The appellate found that a long list of alleged beatings and killings at the jail during Baca’s tenure was enough to show a potential connection between the sheriff’s indifference to the violent conditions at the jail and Starr’s beating.
“First, Starr’s complaint specifically alleges numerous incidents in which inmates in Los Angeles County jails have been killed or injured because of the culpable actions of the subordinates of Sheriff Baca,” Judge William Fletcher wrote for the panel. “The complaint specifically alleges that Sheriff Baca was given notice of all of these incidents.
“It specifically alleges, in addition, that Sheriff Baca was given notice, in several reports, of systematic problems in the county jails under his supervision that have resulted in these deaths and injuries,” the ruling continues. “Finally, it alleges that Sheriff Baca did not take action to protect inmates under his care despite the dangers, created by the actions of his subordinates, of which he had been made aware. These allegations are neither ‘bald’ nor ‘conclusory.’ Rather, they are sufficiently detailed to give notice to Sheriff Baca of the nature of Starr’s claim against him and to give him a fair opportunity to defend against it.”
Writing in dissent, Judge Stephen Trott argued that Starr’s complaint had “all the hallmarks of an attempted end run around the prohibition against using the vicarious liability doctrine of respondeat superior to get at the boss.”
“It follows as night the day that the individual under scrutiny must have personally engaged in identifiably actionable behavior,” Trott wrote.
Finding that Starr’s complaint had “sufficiently alleged a supervisory liability claim of deliberate indifference against Sheriff Baca,” the panel reversed the District Court’s dismissal and remanded the case for another round.