Because no Supreme Court precedent established a right to suicide prevention protocols, corrections officials were entitled to qualified immunity in case involving claim that inmate suicide arose from facility’s violation of inmate’s Eighth Amendment right to appropriate suicide screening, treatment and monitoring

Taylor v. Barkes, 135 S.Ct. 2042 (2015) (per curiam)

Christopher Barkes was arrested in 2004 for violating probation and was taken to a Department of Corrections (DOC) facility in Wilmington, Delaware, where he underwent a suicide screening based on a model form developed by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) in 1997 as part of intake procedures. The intake was completed by a nurse from the contractor employed by the facility (First Correctional Medical, Inc. [FCM]). Barkes stated that he had attempted suicide in 2003 and disclosed that he had a history of psychiatric treatment, but said that he was not currently contemplating suicide. The nurse gave Barkes a routine referral to mental health services and did not initiate any special suicide prevention measures. Barkes was placed in a cell by himself. He placed a call to his wife that evening and expressed his intention to kill himself, but his wife did not inform the DOC. The next morning, Barkes was observed lying on his bed at 10:45, 10;50, and 11:00 am. At 11:35 am, an officer delivered lunch to the cell and discovered that Barkes had hanged himself with a bedsheet.

The Third Circuit held that Barkes’s constitutional right to “proper implementation of adequate suicide prevention tools” was clearly established at the time of his suicide. It also held that summary judgment was inappropriate given evidence that “FCM’s policies and procedures…created an unreasonable risk of a constitutional deprivation” and evidence of DOC’s awareness of FCM’s non-compliance with NCCHC standards. Finally, it held that a reasonable jury could have found that Barkes’s suicide was caused by the DOC’s failure to supervise FCM despite the fact that Barkes did not self-report suicidal ideation or exhibit suicidal behavior. In the court’s view, “had Appellants properly supervised FCM and ensured compliance with the national standards, Barkes’s answers during his screening would have resulted in additional preventive measures being taken.”

The Supreme Court reversed per curiam, holding that the right “to proper implementation of adequate suicide prevention protocols” was not clearly established “in a way that placed beyond debate the unconstitutionality of the [facility’s] procedures.” Although the Third Circuit found the right established by its own precedents, the Court emphasized that no Supreme Court decisions have established a right to proper implementation of adequate suicide prevention protocols or discussed suicide screening protocols. Thus, the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity because they were not “contravening clearly established law,” even if the suicide screening and prevention measures had shortcomings.

Found in DMHL Volume 34 Issue 2