The Ninth Circuit held that the Supreme Court’s decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937 (2009), did not alter the substantive requirements of claims alleging that a supervisor’s deliberate indifference led to unconstitutional conditions of confinement under the Eighth Amendment. Starr v. Baca, No. 09-55233, 2011 WL 2988827 (9th Cir. July 25, 2011). The Ninth Circuit also held that Plaintiff Dion Starr, an individual who was brutally beaten and stabbed while in custody in the Los Angeles County Jail, sufficiently alleged a supervisory liability claim of deliberate indifference against Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy D. Baca. Judge William Fletcher, a Clinton nominee, was joined in the opinion by Judge Charles R. Breyer, also a Clinton nominee. Judge Stephen S. Trott, who was nominated for the federal bench by Ronald Reagan, dissented.
In the opinion, the Ninth Circuit did not address Starr’s claims against the deputies who allowed a group of inmates into Starr’s cell so that they could attack him; watched the group of inmates stab him twenty-three times; brutally beat him after the group of inmates left his cell; and interfered with his ability to obtain medical services for his injuries. Rather, the Ninth Circuit only addressed Starr’s § 1983 action for damages against the person ultimately answerable for his safety, Sheriff Baca. Specifically, Starr alleges that Sheriff Baca violated § 1983 by being deliberately indifferent to the safety of the inmates under his control, even though he knew that the inmates were in danger and he could have taken steps to protect them.
Reviewing de novo the district court’s dismissal of Starr’s complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the Ninth Circuit first addressed Sheriff Baca’s argument that the Supreme Court’s decision in Iqbal eliminated all claims for supervisory liabilty – including deliberate indifference claims. The Ninth Circuit distinguished the claim in Iqbal, which alleged purposeful discrimination. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1948. In contrast, Starr alleged unconstitutional conditions of confinement, which, unlike claims of purposeful discrimination, can be based on the deliberate indifference of a supervisor. In dismissing Sheriff Baca’s argument, Judge Fletcher stated that there is “nothing in Iqbal indicating that the Supreme Court intended to overturn longstanding case law on deliberate indifference claims against supervisors in conditions of confinement cases.” He also noted that other circuit courts which have addressed the issue have agreed with the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation.
The Ninth Circuit next dismissed the argument that Starr does not sufficiently allege a causal connection between Sheriff Baca’s conduct and the injury that he suffered. Judge Fletcher noted that under California law, “[t]he sheriff is required by statute to take charge of and keep the county jail and the prisoners in it, and is answerable for the prisoner’s safekeeping.” Redman v. Cnty. of San Diego, 942 F.2d 1435, 1446 (9th Cir. 1991) (citing Cal. Gov. Code §§ 26605, 26610; Cal. Penal Code § 4006). Judge Fletcher also noted that the Ninth Circuit has held that a supervisor may personally play a role in a constitutional violation through culpable indifference. Menotti v. City of Seattle, 409 F.3d 1113, 1149 (9th Cir. 2005); see Redman, 942 F.2d at 1446. Based on California law and Ninth Circuit precedent, Judge Fletcher held that Starr’s allegations that Sheriff Baca’s inaction caused his injury were sufficient to state a claim of supervisory liability for deliberate indifference.
Finally, the Ninth Circuit rejected Sheriff Baca’s argument that Starr’s complaint does not satisfy pleading standards under Iqbal. Under Rule 8(a), a pleading must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief” for the claim to survive a motion to dismiss. In the opinion, Judge Fletcher stated that while, in theory, Rule 8(a) only requires that a plaintiff give notice of the claim so that the defendant can adequately defend himself or herself, its application in practice is “more nuanced” and in certain situations is applied more stringently. To illustrate, Judge Fletcher summarized three recent Supreme Court cases – including Iqbal – that seemed to apply a higher pleading standard under Rule 8(a) than was traditionally required. Judge Fletcher then went on to discuss two cases, decided in roughly the same period as the three he had just finished discussing, that seemed to apply “the original, more lenient version of Rule 8(a).” Although acknowledging that it is perplexing to try to reconcile the five cases, Judge Fletcher found two principles common to all of the cases:
First, to be entitled to the presumption of truth, allegations in a complaint or counterclaim may not simply recite the elements of a cause of action, but must contain sufficient allegations of underlying facts to give fair notice and to enable the opposing party to defend itself effectively. Second, the factual allegations that are taken as true must plausibly suggest an entitlement to relief, such that it is not unfair to require the opposing party to be subjected to the expense of discovery and continued litigation.
Returning to Starr’s complaint, Judge Fletcher first concluded that it makes sufficient allegations of underlying facts by alleging specifically that: the culpable actions of Sheriff Baca’s subordinates led to the deaths of numerous inmates in Los Angeles County Jail; Sheriff Baca was aware of these incidents; several reports gave Sheriff Baca further notice of the systematic problems in jails under his supervision; and, nonetheless, Sheriff Baca failed to take action to protect the inmates under his control. Addressing the second principle, Judge Fletcher concluded that there is no “obvious alternative explanation” as to why Sheriff Baca did nothing to stop his subordinates from violating prisoners’ constitutional rights that renders the complaint implausible.
Because the Ninth Circuit concluded that Starr’s complaint states a claim for relief, it reversed the district court’s dismissal of the complaint and remanded for further proceedings.
Dissenting, Judge Trott argued that the complaint failed to allege sufficient facts to withstand a motion to dismiss. He stated that even if the majority is correct that supervisory liability survives Iqbal, the complaint in the instant case failed to meet Ninth Circuit standards. To survive a motion to dismiss, according to the dissent, the complaint must allege facts showing either the supervisor’s personal involvement or a causal connection between the supervisor’s wrongful conduct and the constitutional violation. The dissent pointed out the very large size of the LA sheriff’s department and concluded that to “infer that specific incidents which occur in a jail are necessarily known by the Sheriff is to engage in fallacious logic.” The dissent asserts that the majority opinion “is difficult to reconcile with Iqbal.” The dissent noted that Starr had other means of redress, including suing the Sheriff in his individual capacity and alleging an official policy or longstanding custom and practice.