Louisiana Record

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Appeals court reverses summary judgment denial, backs mental patient's doctors at state facility


By Mary Ann Magnell | Aug 28, 2018

BATON ROUGE — A federal appeals court reversed a denial of summary judgment Aug. 16 in a case involving a patient at Eastern Louisiana Mental Health System (ELMHS) and rendered judgment in favor of the patient’s doctors.

Named as defendants in the suits were the administrator of ELMHS, Dr. Hampton “Steve” Lea, Dr. Jeffrey S. Nicholl, the patient’s treating psychiatrist, and Dr. John W. Thompson, the chief of staff at ELMHS. 

The appeal document, written by Judge Stephen A. Higginson of the U.S. Court of Appeals forthe Fifth Circuit, stated Nicholl and Thompson, both employees at Tulane University, had been contracted by the state to provide psychiatric care at ELMHS, a mental health facility. 

The plaintiff and patient, Dominick Perniciaro III, alleged the psychiatrists, administrators and guards at the state-run facility “failed to protect him from harm” either through failure to act or through insufficient training. During his commitment at ELMHS, he allegedly “sustained numerous injuries—some minor and some more serious—as a result of physical altercations with other patients and with guards.”

Perniciaro initiated an § 1983 action in April 2015, alleging the care he received at the medical facility “fell below the level required under the 14th Amendment.”

In question were the defendants’ qualified immunity statuses—whether Nicholls and Thompson’s private employee status would allow them the protection granted to their public employee counterparts. According to the filing, the “doctrine of qualified immunity shields officials from civil liability so long as their conduct ‘does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.’”

The court found that “general principles of immunity at common law support the rights of Drs. Thompson and Nicholl to raise the defense of qualified immunity.”  

Additionally, the 25-page filing noted Perniciaro had not “cited a single case—either in his briefing before the district court or before us—clearly establishing that the particular conduct at issue violates the professional-judgment standard.” According to the document, he had failed to establish that the defendants’ conduct “was objectively unreasonable in light of clearly established law” and that Perniciaro had not presented evidence that showed that his doctors were “deliberately indifferent to a substantial risk of serious harm.”

The plaintiff, who suffers from schizophrenia, had been committed to the mental health facility since he was arrested for battery in 2013. According to the filing, he experienced violent outbursts and aggression among other symptoms, some of which “occur without warning or apparent provocation.” He was found to be incompetent to stand trial when he was first committed. In 2015, Perniciaro was found to be not guilty by reason of insanity.

U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit case number 17-30161

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