A recent appellate court decision involving claims of violations by Chicago police officers has received a lot of media attention because of the severe nature of the resulting injuries suffered by the plaintiff. While the Chicago Police Department claimed that its officers had qualified immunity and could not be held responsible for the harm done to Christina Eilman, the Illinois Appellate Court disagreed. Paine v. Cason, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 8450 (7th Cir. Ill. Apr. 26, 2012).
Paine was brought by the mother of 21 year-old Christina Eilman against the City of Chicago and its police officers regarding the May 2006 arrest of Ellman. Officers were called to respond to a disturbance caused by Ellman as she attempted to board a plane at Chicago’s Midway Airport. Ellman was suffering from mental illness, but had not been taking her medications; as a result she was exhibiting disruptive behavior and needed to be escorted from the airport.
Police initially took Ellman to the 8th District Station, located on 63rd St., but then transferred her to the 2nd District Station, a woman-specific holding facility located on South Wentworth Ave. While at the 2nd District, Ellman was both maniac and calm, exhibiting behaviors typical of her diagnosed bipolar disorder. Despite her obvious mental illness, she was not given any medical treatment or a psychiatric evaluation. Instead, she was released two days after her initial arrest, still in an unstable mental condition.
The accusations in the complaint focus both on the lack of medical care offered while Ellman was in custody and on the manner of her release. Instead of returning Ellman to Midway Airport, or a similarly safe area, she was released directly from the 2nd District Station, which is located near the Robert Taylor Homes, a Chicago public housing project with an extremely high crime rate. In addition, Ellman was released without her cell phone, was scantily clad in short shorts and a bare midriff shirt, and was not in a mental condition that allowed her to appreciate the danger of her situation. Consequently, Ellman wandered into a vacant apartment with several young men, where she was raped at knife point. She then either jumped or was pushed out of a 7-story window, resulting in severe brain damage and other injuries.
As a result, Ellman’s mother brought a lawsuit against the City of Chicago and the involved police officers alleging both negligence and violations of Ellman’s rights. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment on the basis that the Chicago Police Officers were protected by qualified immunity. While the district court granted that some of the officers were immune, it denied the defense’s motions to dismiss the case, leaving the plaintiffs with the ability to file an interlocutory appeal with the Appellate Court.
Qualified immunity essentially protects government officials, such as police officers, from any liability for their actions if they did not violate a clearly established law. So even if their actions were later found to be unlawful, if a reasonable person in the same circumstances would not have know that they were violating a law, then they cannot be held liable for doing so. In Paine, the police officers claimed that they had not violated any clearly established laws and therefore were protected under qualified immunity. However, the district court judge did not agree; rather, the judge felt that a detainee’s right to medical care, including psychiatric care, was clearly established and that the police officers should have been aware of it.
In its review, the appellate court found that there were three separate theories of law and that each needed to be evaluated to determine whether or not it was clearly established. The first theory dealt with whether or not Ellman had a right to medical care while in custody. The court held that the requirement for police to provide medical care for seriously injured people in custody had been clearly established in Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994).
The second issue was related to whether the police should have kept Ellman in custody longer in order to help facilitate medical care. The appellate court ruled that this was not a clearly established law. In fact, doing so would put an unnecessary burden on police officers to make decisions that could only be made by medical professionals.
The third issue was regarding whether the police had a duty not to release Ellman into a dangerous situation. Again, the court ruled that this duty was clearly established and that any state employees who increase a person’s risk of harm without justification for doing so are in clear violation of the Constitution. Bowers v. DeVito, 686 F.2d 616, 618 (7th Cir. 1982). To support its assessment that the police officers had increased Ellman’s risk of harm, the court pointed to statistics showing sexual assaults were 15 times more common in the area where Ellman was released than were she was arrested. Given her mental and physical condition at the time of her release, the court held that the risk was so great that the police officers “might as well have released her into the lions’ den at Brookfield Zoo.”
There were many different police officers involved during the various stages of Ellman’s arrest and release. Because each police officer played a different role, the appellate court did not find them all to have violated clearly established laws. Of the thirteen officers involved, only ten appealed the district court decision. Of those ten, the appellate court was able to determine whether or not eight of them were entitled to qualified immunity. However, there were two officers for whom there were still issues of fact that needed to be decided before the question of their immunity could be answered; those defendants’ were remanded back to the district court for further proceedings.
Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois personal injury matters and has served to protect individuals and families from unsafe conditions for more than 36 years, in and around Chicago, Cook County, and surrounding areas, including Lynwood, Glen Ellyn, Palatine, Palos Heights, Chicago’s Beverly, Inverness, and Antioch.
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