SCOTUS rejects CA's appeal to protect prison officials from lawsuits related to COVID outbreak sparked by 2020 inmate transfer

 May 14, 2024

During the 2020 pandemic, actions taken by California prison officials resulted in an outbreak of COVID-19 that proved fatal for dozens of inmates and one guard, which led to lawsuits from the families of the deceased against the state.

California has unsuccessfully argued in court since then that its prison officials should be protected from the lawsuits via "qualified immunity," but the Supreme Court just declined to take up the state's appeal, the Los Angeles Times reported.

That rejection of California's appeal means that federal lawsuits can proceed against state prison officials who stand accused of displaying "deliberate indifference" in transferring inmates from one prison to another during the pandemic, which caused a deadly outbreak that claimed the lives of 28 prisoners and one guard.

Transfer of inmates sparks deadly COVID outbreak

The L.A. Times reported that in May 2020, California prison officials grew concerned about a COVID-19 outbreak at the California Institution for Men in Chino that had already resulted in more than 600 infections and nine inmate deaths.

In an attempt to halt that outbreak, a decision was made to transfer 122 inmates from the prison in Chino to one in San Quentin, where there were no reported COVID cases at the time. Except, rather than alleviate the outbreak at Chino, the move simply caused a new outbreak of cases within days at San Quentin. By September, more than 2,100 inmates and 270 staffers were sick, with more than two dozen inmates and one guard ultimately succumbing to the viral disease.

As a result, at least four major lawsuits were filed against the California prison officials by the families of the deceased inmates and guard -- suits the state sought to dismiss by claiming "qualified immunity" for the officials as protection from liability.

State's claim of "qualified immunity" for prison officials rejected at all levels

California's "qualified immunity" defense did not fare well in the courts, according to the Associated Press, as a superior court judge in 2021 ruled that prison officials had "ignored virtually every safety measure" during the inmate transfer from Chino to San Quentin.

Around the same time, the San Quentin prison was hit with a $421,880 fine for pandemic-related workplace safety violations by state regulators, and state lawmakers from both sides of the aisle were highly critical of the "completely avoidable" and deadly catastrophe that was sparked by the prison officials' inmate transfer decision.

The lower court's ruling was upheld on appeal by a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel, which determined that prison officials not only unnecessarily exposed inmates and guards to the virus they otherwise might not have contracted but also declined to provide them with potentially life-saving personal protective equipment.

That led the state to file its petition with the Supreme Court in December 2023, in a case known as Diaz v. Polanco, which asked the justices to consider "Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit improperly denied qualified immunity to prison officials in these cases by defining the relevant law at a high level of generality and failing to identify any precedent recognizing a constitutional violation on similar facts."

Unfortunately for the state and those officials who can now be sued, the Supreme Court declined to take up the case without any comment or explanation in an Orders List released on Monday.

A "textbook case" of "deliberate indifference" by prison officials

"The state has had its due process all the way to the Supreme Court. They’re not getting off on a technicality," attorney Michael J. Haddad, who represents the families, said of the Supreme Court's rejection of California's appeal, according to the AP.

In light of how the pending lawsuits against prison officials can now proceed, the lawyer added, "Now it’s time to face the facts. Prison administrators killed 29 people in what the 9th Circuit called a 'textbook case' of deliberate indifference."

The AP noted that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation declined to comment on Monday's decision from the Supreme Court, citing its policy of not weighing in on active legal proceedings.

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