The appellate panel will decide whether disability discrimination led to Brock Tucker’s suicide while in solidary confinement in a Utah prison.
(CN) — A Utah grandmother asked the 10th Circuit on Wednesday to revive her lawsuit against state prison officials over the 2014 death of her mentally ill grandson who took his own life while in solitary confinement.
As a child, Brock Tucker suffered a near-fatal downing accident, leaving him with an IQ of 70. While serving a sentence for car theft, Tucker spent 115 of 160 days in solitary confinement as punishment for possessing tattoo paraphernalia, receiving tattoos, swearing and throwing an unidentified liquid at other inmates. Tucker, then 19, hanged himself with a bedsheet while in solitary confinement in October 2014.
Crane sued the Utah Department of Corrections in October 2016, claiming the state’s discrimination against Tucker’s mental disabilities led to his suicide.
After granting qualified immunity to many state defendants, a lower court dismissed Crane’s complaint in February 2020. The judge found Utah’s survivor statute did not cover a disabilities discrimination claim.
This logic negates the entire purpose of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Crane’s attorney Samuel Weiss from the D.C. firm Rights Behind Bars told the 10th Circuit panel Wednesday.
“Take for example disabilities discrimination in the use of ventilators in hospitals, which there is litigation around in the case of Covid-19,” Weiss said. “Those claims would essentially be rendered nonjusticiable. It would take the most severe cases of disability discrimination and take it outside the ambit of the ADA.”
U.S. Circuit Judge Carolyn B. McHugh, a Barack Obama appointee, pressed Weiss on how corrections officers knew Tucker was suicidal.
“It is widely understood that people with serious mental issues have the risk of suicidality,” Weiss said, listing four places in the complaint where defendants acknowledged being aware of his history.
Fellow Obama appointee U.S. Circuit Judge Robert E. Bacharach asked Weiss to distinguish this case from the 2009 Supreme Court case Ashcroft v. Iqbal, which he considered “an almost identical case.”
Iqbal considered the role of the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. attorney general in acts of racism and religious discrimination against individuals detained following the 9/11 terror attacks.
Weiss distinguished between the conclusory knowledge possessed by the top U.S. officials and the warden of a prison.
“It is obviously more plausible here that the warden of a prison and the director of clinical services would understand that one of their sickest inmates was at risk of suicide,” Weiss said.
Joshua Davidson, assistant solicitor general for the state of Utah, questioned whether it was common knowledge Tucker was suicidal.
“There’s an allegation that being in solitary confinement would have increased suicidal risk, but that’s different from knowing someone is an imminent and substantial risk of suicide,” Davidson argued.
McHugh, citing the Utah Supreme Court’s 2013 opinion in Gressman v. State, asked whether the state’s dismissal of ADA claims actually held up under state law.
“I would suggest even if we were to adopt the Utah survivability rule, this would survive,” McHugh said.
Davidson ducked the issue altogether.
“This court can avoid avoid addressing the survivability statute because Crane’s complaint fails to allege a plausible ADA or Rehabilitation Act claim,” Davison argued. “There’s no allegation that Utah Department of Corrections excluded Tucker from participation and or denied the benefits of prison services, programs or activities by reason of an alleged disability.”
Judge Bacharach quickly countered.
“What about the right to be housed in a cell that is safe?” Bacharach asked.
Davidson stood his ground. “Crane is conflating mental illness with suicidal ideation, there’s a big difference between diagnosed with mental illness and being diagnosed as a substantial suicide risk,” he said, adding Tucker had access to medication and counseling.
He continued: “The failure to diagnose him as a suicide risk is not an ADA claim. If the Utah Department of Corrections put every mentally ill patient in a cell with no bed and no bedding, I’m sure we’d be sued for an ADA violation.”
George W. Bush appointee U.S. Circuit Judge Jerome A. Holmes presided over the hearing, which was broadcast to 55 viewers over YouTube. The panel did not indicate how or when they will decide the case.