Dinkins v. Corr. Med. Ctr.: Prisons and Disability Discrimination

Caitlin Schweppe
58 St. Louis U. L. J. 73 | PDF

Introduction

According to Title II of the American of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), “no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by such entity.”[1] Because Title II applies to state prisons,[2] inmates have the same rights under the ADA and Rehabilitation Act as non-incarcerated disabled individuals. In Dinkins v. Corr. Med. Ctr., the Eighth Circuit addressed an appeal from an inmate who alleged Title II ADA and Rehabilitation Act violations.[3] Although the court came to the correct conclusion, it missed an important opportunity to give guidance and stress the importance of the ADA as applied to state prisons.

I. History

Robert Dinkins, an inmate at the Jefferson City Correctional Center in Jefferson City, Missouri, began experiencing blackouts, weakness, and difficultly walking in 2004.[4] Despite requests, Dinkins received no medical care for six months and was later diagnosed with pernicious anemia.[5] As a result of being left untreated, Dinkins was paralyzed from the waist down by April 2006.[6] Dinkins was denied assignment to the transitional Care Unit and instead was placed in segregation without handicap access, forcing him to crawl and eat meals on the floor.[7] Additionally, Dinkins was denied other accommodations such as someone to push his wheelchair, a handicap accessible cell, medically prescribed physical therapy, preventative treatment, and exclusion from activities in the cold.[8] According to Dinkins, the lack of accommodations caused him difficulties such as missing meals, falling, and the inability to move around his cell.[9] Dinkins sued the State of Missouri, the Missouri Department of Corrections (“MDOC”), Correctional Medical Services (“CMS”), medical doctors, and Jefferson City Correctional Center officers Philip Lange and Morris Logan asserting that defendants violated his rights under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Title II of the ADA.[10]

The court dismissed Dinkins’s claims against officers Lange and Logan finding they could not be sued in their individual capacities under the Rehabilitation Act and ADA.[11] The court dismissed the other claims against defendants finding that they were based on medical treatment decisions and that the State of Missouri and the MDOC had Eleventh Amendment immunity.[12] In his appeal, Dinkins made two main arguments. First, he asserted that the district court erred in dismissing his complaint because some medical treatment decisions are actionable under the Rehabilitation Act and ADA.[13] Second, Dinkins argued that the State of Missouri and the MDOC did not have Eleventh Amendment immunity under the Rehabilitation Act and ADA.[14]

II. Analysis

A.         Court’s Analysis

In considering Dinkins’s claim against officers Lange and Logan, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the court’s dismissal and held that these individuals could not be sued in their individual capacities under the Rehabilitation Act and ADA.[15] Additionally, the court affirmed the dismissal of the claims against the medical doctors and CMS, holding that the claims were based on medical treatment decisions—not properly diagnosing and treating Plaintiff’s pernicious anemia.[16] In so holding, the court relied on another Eighth Circuit decision holding that the Rehabilitation Act and ADA were not intended to apply to decisions involving medical treatment.[17]

In reviewing Dinkins’s claims, the court noted that not all of Plaintiff’s claims were based on medical decisions.[18] In its analysis, the court first relied on a Supreme Court case, which held that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, and several officials, violated the ADA when they denied a state prison inmate admission to a prison boot camp program because of his history of hypertension.[19] Importantly, the Court in Yeskey held that state prisons and prisoners fall within the statutory definition of “public entity” in Title II of the ADA and that the boot camp at issue was in fact a “benefit.”[20] Similarly, the court referred to a Seventh Circuit case, which held that the Illinois Department of Corrections violated the Rehabilitation Act and ADA by not accommodating an inmate’s disability by denying him access to meals and showers on the same basis as other inmates.[21] In relying on Yeskey and Jaros, the court here found Plaintiff’s denials of meals, adequate housing, and medically prescribed physical therapy based on his disability could form the basis of Rehabilitation Act and ADA violations.[22] Thus, the court reversed the dismissal of the claims for injunctive relief against Logan, Lange, the State of Missouri, and MDOC that were not based on medical treatment decisions.[23]

Lastly, in reviewing damages, the court found that MDOC waived sovereign immunity under the Rehabilitation Act by accepting federal funds.[24] Specifically, the court relied on Jim C. v. U.S., which held that Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits any program or activity that receives federal funds from discriminating against a qualified individual with a disability.[25] Further, according to Title II of the ADA, MDOC and the State of Missouri could not claim sovereign immunity if their conduct also violated the Fourteenth Amendment.[26] Thus, the court remanded the damages claims against the State of Missouri and MDOC to determine if there were Eighth Amendment or Eleventh Amendment violations.[27]

B.         Author’s Analysis

While the Eighth Circuit in Dinkins did acknowledge possible ADA and Rehabilitation Act violations,[28] the court should have provided a more in-depth discussion of the topic. The court in Dinkins only referred to Plaintiff’s “denials of meals and adequate housing” as “benefits” he was denied.[29] However, Dinkins alleged many specific benefits he was denied: someone to push his wheelchair, a handicapped-accessible cell, physical therapy, preventative treatment, examination by an outside specialist, wheelchair accessories, exemption from cold activities.[30] Thus, under Title II the main issue was what services, programs, and activities were denied to Plaintiff.[31] By failing to address these one-by-one, the court seemed to be minimizing the severity of the allegations.

Further, the Department of Justice has enacted regulations and guidance specifically for correctional facilities and prisons.[32] In 28 C.F.R. § 35.152, the Department set forth detailed guidelines for correctional facilities to prohibit disability discrimination. In Appendix A to the regulation, the Department notes that there is a lack of accessibility in cells for prison inmates and suggests ways for both existing and newly constructed prisons to be more accessible.[33] Despite the importance the Department of Justice placed on accessibility to prisoners, the court did not comment on the cell accessibility or refer to these regulations.[34] In its holding, the court should have not only told the Department of Corrections what not to do, but also how to fix the discrimination.

Conclusion

Discrimination in any form is unacceptable and discrimination for being a disabled inmate should not be an exception. With the enactment of the Rehabilitation Act in 1973, the ADA in 1990, and the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments in 2008, Congress has made it clear that this type of discrimination will not be tolerated. While the Dinkins court did reverse and remand some of the ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims,[35] the court provided little analysis and reasoning. Because of the severity of the allegations and the importance of preventing disability discrimination, the Eighth Circuit should have provided guidance for other prisons to follow. The court should have taken this opportunity to send a clear message that disability discrimination in prisons is not acceptable.

Caitlin Schweppe*



[1] 42 U.S.C. § 12132 (2012).

[2] Pa. Dep’t of Corr. v. Yeskey, 524 U.S. 206, 210 (1998).

[3] Dinkins v. Corr. Med. Ctr., 743 F.3d 633, 634 (8th Cir. 2014).

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Dinkins, 743 F.3d at 634.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.; Appellant’s Reply Brief at 5, Dinkins v. Corr. Med. Ctr., 743 F.3d 633, 634 (8th Cir. 2014) (No. 12-2127).

[13] Id. at 3.

[14] Id. at 5.

[15] Dinkins, 743 F.3d at 634.

[16] Id.

[17] Id. (citing Burger v. Bloomberg, 418 F.3d 882, 883 (8th Cir. 2005)).

[18] Id.

[19] Id. (citing Pa. Dep’t of Corr. v. Yeskey, 524 U.S. 206, 210 (1998)).

[20] Yeskey, 524 U.S. at 210–12.

[21] Dinkins, 743 F.3d at 635 (citing Jaros v. Ill. Dep’t of Corr., 684 F.3d 667, 670, 672 (7th Cir. 2012)).

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id. (citing Jim C. v. U.S., 235 F.3d 1079, 1080 (8th Cir. 2000)).

[26] Dinkins, 743 F.3d at 635.

[27] Id.

[28] Id. at 634.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] 42 U.S.C. § 12132 (2012).

[32] 28 C.F.R. § 35, app. A (2013).

[33] Id.

[34] Dinkins, 743 F.3d at 634.

[35] Id. at 635.

* J.D. Candidate, 2015, Saint Louis University School of Law. I would like to thank all those who have stood by and supported me throughout law school.