Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

Civil Rights-Richardson V. McKnight: The Rise and Fall of Private Prison Guards' Qualified Immunity

Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

Civil Rights-Richardson V. McKnight: The Rise and Fall of Private Prison Guards' Qualified Immunity

Article excerpt

A private prison corporation employed two correctional officers, Daryll Richardson and John Walker, who allegedly subjected the plaintiff, Ronnie McKnight, to extremely tight restraints while transporting him between prisons.' McKnight's complaint asserted that Richardson and Walker infringed his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by subjecting him to handcuffs and ankle shackles that were far too tight for his 302 pound frame.2 His discomfort was so evident that other inmates on the bus implored the officers to loosen his restraints. Richardson and Walker refused to loosen McKnight's shackles and allegedly showered him with abusive language, telling him that he "was getting what he deserved" and that he should "suffer." McKnight alleged that the handcuffs and shackles cut off his circulation and caused extreme pain and swelling, and by the time he arrived at the South Central Correctional Center (SCCC), he could not walk without assistance. His injury from the handcuffs and shackles was so severe that he required hospitalization to improve circulation in his limbs.3 Subsequently, McKnight filed a 19834 action against the warden of SCCC,' Richardson, and Walker, claiming that they "violated his constitutional rights under the Eighth Amendment."6 Richardson and Walker moved to dismiss the complaint, claiming that they were entitled to qualified immunity because they were correctional officers.' The district court denied their motion to dismiss, reasoning that correctional officers of a private for-profit corporation were not entitled to the protection of qualified immunity.8 Richardson and Walker filed a timely interlocutory appeal.9 The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed, holding that the public policy reasons supporting the grant of immunity to public correctional officers were inapplicable to private individuals performing the same function.'o The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari and held, affirmed. Correctional officers employed by a private, for-profit prison corporation contracting with the state are not entitled to qualified immunity. son v. McKnight, 117 S. Ct 2100 (1997). Section 19831 provides a tort-like remedy designed to protect individuals from abuse at the hands of government officials. The statute provides that a successful plaintiff may recover damages for violations of his federally protected rights. To establish a prima facie case, a plaintiff must establish two elements. First, the plaintiff must show that the defendant acted "under color of state law,"'2 and second, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant deprived him of federal statutory or constitutional rights.'3 An established defense available to individual 1983 defendants is personal immunity, which may be absolute or qualified.'4 The immunity defense, which allows a party to avoid litigation completely, serves to "shield [public officials] from undue interference with their duties and from potentially disabling threats of liability."'5 To determine whether a public official is entitled to immunity, courts look to common law and public policy reasons supporting immunity." The common law portion of the analysis seeks to determine whether immunity was extended to public officials sued in tort for similar misconduct prior to the enactment of 1983.' The public policy portion focuses on whether immunity is necessary to preserve the ability of government officials to serve the public good or to ensure that talented candidates are not deterred from entering public service by threat of damages suits.18

The Supreme Court, for many years, has interpreted 1983 to incorporate common law immunities into 1983 actions even though the statute fails to mention any defenses.'9 The Court looked to the legislative history of 1983 and reasoned that immunity was so well established at common law that Congress explicitly would have abolished immunity if that had been its intent.zo Accordingly, if parties seeking immunity were shielded from tort suits when 1983 was enacted, they are also immune from 1983 claims. …

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