A federal appeals court has thrown out a $20,000 judgment awarded to a former inmate who claimed he received inadequate medical care while recovering from bladder cancer at Orleans Parish Prison.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a single-paragraph opinion, reversed the damages levied against Dr. Samuel Gore, the jail’s former medical director, citing a lack of evidence that Gore showed “deliberate indifference” to the inmate’s medical needs. The former inmate, Anthony Lawrence, 55, said he intended to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Acting as his own attorney, Lawrence sued Gore and Sheriff Marlin Gusman in late 2012, claiming the jail’s lackadaisical approach to changing his urostomy bags violated his constitutional rights and left him in a miserable state for several months, in which his odor became offensive to other inmates.
Lawrence said he suffered from constant pain and, just months after having his bladder and prostate removed, had to sleep on the floor because he couldn’t climb to an upper bunk and other beds were unavailable. Eventually, he developed an infection that required long-term antibiotic treatment.
While handwritten inmate lawsuits often meet swift dismissal, Lawrence found a sympathetic ear in Karen Wells Roby, a federal magistrate judge who after a December bench trial ruled that Gore “must be held to answer for the indifference shown to Lawrence’s care, both directly and as a supervising authority.”
In a 31-page ruling, the magistrate described a “continued and curious disregard” for Lawrence’s malfunctioning urostomy bags that ran afoul of the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
“The circumstances here display intentional disregard for his health, the cleanliness and care of his relatively fresh stoma and uroscopy site, as well as his physical comfort,” Roby wrote. “As a result of the superficial concern shown, he suffered for months with intestinal discomfort, pain, skin rashes, and eventually an infection requiring lengthy antibiotic treatment.”
Last week, the 5th Circuit panel reversed Roby’s ruling but provided little explanation, saying only that the record in the case was “insufficient to support an Eighth Amendment claim for deliberate indifference.” The unanimous opinion, which ordered the lawsuit dismissed, was issued by Judges Patrick Higginbotham, Priscilla Owen and Grady Jolly.
Lawrence’s medical problems began in earnest in late 2011 when he was diagnosed with bladder cancer. He underwent a series of surgeries, including one in early 2012 to remove his bladder and prostate. After several months of being hospitalized, he was released with instructions to return for follow-up appointments.
On one of those appointment dates, in June 2012, Lawrence did not make it to the hospital because he was jailed for failing to register as a sex offender. Lawrence has a lengthy arrest record and pleaded guilty in 2000 to sexual battery and simple kidnapping, a conviction that required he register as a sex offender.
Lawrence testified he had to rely on family members to bring his urostomy bags to OPP for two months and that he was housed in one of the jail’s general population tents — temporary housing units used after Hurricane Katrina — instead of the medical unit. He was frequently unclean and without towels, he said, and had to file repeated grievances to receive fresh bags.
Even after an LSU doctor finally examined Lawrence and ordered his bags be changed daily for a 30-day period, Roby noted in her order, Lawrence received just three bag changes during the entire month of January 2013.
The lack of adequate medical care at OPP remains chief among the worries of inmate advocates, as well as the team of court-appointed experts tasked with overseeing the federal consent decree intended to overhaul the jail. A recent report by those experts, known as the jail’s monitors, warned of a “continuing risk of serious harm to inmates with serious medical needs.”
“Referrals by the nurse practitioners to the physician can fall through the cracks or can be untimely,” the monitors found. “For example, one inmate was referred to the physician within two days for a mass on his leg, yet it took 32 days for him to be seen.”
Gusman recently contracted with an outside firm, Correct Care Solutions, to provide medical and mental health services, a move the sheriff has said will improve the health care afforded to inmates.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.