Prison Physician Acted under Color of State Law

Developments in Mental Health Law, July-December 1988 | Go to article overview

Prison Physician Acted under Color of State Law


West v. Atkins,--U.S.--, 56 U.S.L.W. 4664 (June 21, 1988)

In a unanimous opinion the Supreme Court held that a private physician under contract to provide orthopedic services at a state prison hospital on a part-time basis is acting under color of state law and is thus subject to suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. [section]1983. To state a claim of action under [section]1983, a plaintiff must allege the violation of a right secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States and show that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under "color of state law."

Quincy West, a prisoner at a North Carolina state prison, was injured while playing volleyball. West was ultimately treated by Dr. Samuel Atkins, a private physician who provided orthopedic services to inmates on a part-time contractual basis with the state prison hospital. West claimed that although Dr. Atkins acknowledged that surgery would be necessary to treat him, the physician refused to schedule it and discharged West before his injury was healed.

Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1987), established that a state has a constitutional obligation under the eighth amendment to provide adequate medical care to those whom it incarcerates. Indifference to a prisoner's medical needs by a prison physician breaches that obligation, giving rise to a cause of action against the physician under [section]1983. West sued Dr. Atkins pursuant to [section]1983, alleging that Dr. Atkins violated West's eighth amendment right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment, because he was deliberately indifferent to West's serious medical needs and failed to provide treatment.

The district court granted Atkins's motion for summary judgment on the grounds that he was not acting under color of state law. A divided Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit eventually affirmed the district court's dismissal of West's complaint, concluding that a professional who acts "within the bounds of traditional discretion and judgment does not act under color of state law. …

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