Supreme Court won’t hear California’s claim of immunity for COVID-19 deaths at prison

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Supreme Court on May 13 rejected an appeal from California prison officials who claimed immunity from lawsuits for transferring inmates with COVID-19 to San Quentin Rehabilitation Center in 2020, which allegedly caused an outbreak that left a guard and more than two dozen prisoners dead.

The Office of the Inspector General in California described the outbreak as “the worst epidemiological disaster in California correctional history.”

California Assemblyman Marc Levine, a Democrat who represents the area, previously called the transport of infected prisoners to the state facility in San Quentin “the worst prison health screw-up in state history.”

“We cannot sweep it under the rug. There must be accountability,” the lawmaker added at the time. “Never has too little, too late been more true, or cruel.”

The Supreme Court denied the petition for certiorari (pdf), or review, in Diaz v. Polanco in an unsigned order. No justices dissented. The court did not explain its decision. At least four of the nine justices have to approve a petition for it to advance to the oral argument stage.

The lead petitioner, Ralph Diaz, is the former secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The lead respondent, Patricia Polanco, is the widow of a prison guard who died.

That guard, Gilbert Polanco, was 55 years old and had been an employee of San Quentin for more than 20 years. He suffered from obesity, hypertension, and diabetes, which placed him at high risk were he to contract COVID-19.

During the pandemic, he was required to drive sick inmates to the hospital, but attorneys claim that prison officials refused to furnish him or the prisoners with personal protective equipment. In mid-2020, he came down with the disease, which led to his death months later after a protracted stay in the hospital.

His family’s attorney said he died because of a “state-created danger.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that prison management needlessly exposed Mr. Polanco to risks he would not otherwise have faced and did not protect him from the danger their policies created. The circuit court denied the state so-called qualified immunity at the motion-to-dismiss stage.

The Supreme Court’s decision not to intervene means the state will have to face multiple federal lawsuits from the surviving family members of those who died and from staff members and inmates who were infected with the disease but survived.

The state said in its petition that there are at least 11 underlying lawsuits involved in this appeal, and more than 40 other lawsuits have been lodged regarding the outbreak at San Quentin.

The state urged the Supreme Court to take up the case, arguing that its prison officials enjoyed qualified immunity and could not be sued. Qualified immunity is a doctrine invented by the courts that shields law enforcement officials from individual liability unless the person violated a clearly established right.

Citing legal precedents, the state argued in its petition that government officials are protected from liability unless their conduct runs afoul of “clearly established” law that “placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.”

Such an “exacting standard” affords “government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments.”

When lower courts ignore qualified immunity, they impose “substantial social costs, including the risk that fear of personal monetary liability and harassing litigation will unduly inhibit officials in the discharge of their duties.”

This is why the Supreme Court has deemed it necessary to issue several opinions reversing federal courts in qualified immunity lawsuits and reiterating “the longstanding principle that ‘clearly established law’ should not be defined ‘at a high level of generality,’” the petition stated.

Although the facts of these cases are “undeniably tragic,” the 9th Circuit failed to uphold the qualified immunity doctrine.

In the early days of the pandemic, when knowledge about the disease and the supply of testing materials were limited, the state did its best to protect vulnerable prisoners who were housed in facilities where the virus had gained a foothold. They transferred those prisoners to San Quentin, which then suffered its own outbreak of COVID-19, according to the petition.

The respondents argued in their brief (pdf) that California officials behaved irresponsibly.

By late May 2020, they raced to meet a self-imposed deadline to transfer “122 medically vulnerable inmates from a prison that had 600 COVID cases to a prison that had none.”

Officials refused to retest the high-risk prisoners before transferring them even though 121 of the 122 men hadn’t been tested for COVID-19 for two to four weeks.

They also failed to properly screen many of those inmates at the California Institution for Men in Chino for symptoms before loading them onto buses for the 10-hour trip to San Quentin, the brief stated.

Within days of arriving at San Quentin, 25 prisoners came down with COVID-19 among the 122 transferees, and within three weeks, 499 people had tested positive at the prison.

And in the months that followed, officials “continued to disregard urgent recommendations from public health authorities and the medical receiver’s team of experts,” the brief stated.

The Epoch Times reached out for comment to the California Department of Justice and to the injured parties’ attorneys, Stanley Apps of Studio City, California, and Paul W. Hughes of McDermott, Will, and Emery of Washington, but had not received any replies as of press time.

This article by Matthew Vadum appeared May 13, 2024, in The Epoch Times.