Appellate Clinic Wins Reversal in U.S. Court of Appeals for Inmate in Civil Rights Case

Two students in the law school’s Appellate Clinic recently helped earn a favorable “reverse and remand” order from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in a case involving an inmate’s civil rights.

Now recent graduates, Nick Rasmussen and William Osberghaus, both JD ’12, briefed the case with Appellate Clinic alumnus John Schoemehl, JD ’08, an associate at Bryan Cave LLP; Adjunct Professor Brian C. Walsh, a partner at Bryan Cave LLP; and Bruce La Pierre, professor of law, who runs the Appellate Clinic.

“This case involved significant constitutional issues – whether a prisoner has a right to food, and whether it’s cruel and unusual punishment to refuse to feed prisoners,” says Schoemehl, who argued the case. “This win is an important step toward addressing a troubling constitutional violation, and the willingness of the Appellate Clinic to take on this work demonstrates the essential service it provides.”

The clinic fought the case, Taylor v. Dormire, on behalf of Arthur Taylor, a prisoner at the Jefferson City Correctional Center who was denied food for the better part of six days while “restrained” on a metal bench outside of his cell. Prison officials shackled Taylor to the bench, in accordance with prison policy, after he notified his jailers that he feared violence from his cellmate.

Under prison policy, inmates are restrained to the bench until new cells can be found. But in Taylor’s case, the policy was carried to distressing lengths – with hours turning into days and with the prisoner ultimately missing 12 meals. Shockingly, the prison officials argued that they’d done nothing wrong: Under their policies, they could continue to withhold food indefinitely until a cell became available.

Taylor sued, charging that prison officials had violated his constitutional rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. When the jury ruled in favor of the prison officials, Taylor appealed, arguing that the trial court had failed to give them the proper instructions.

At the original trial, Taylor’s counsel had requested that both an “excessive force instruction” and a “nominal damages instruction” be read to the jury. The district court, however, refused to instruct the jury on nominal damages.

Taylor challenged this ruling on appeal. Taylor also argued that the judge should have instructed the jury on the officials’ unconstitutional “deliberate indifference to the need for food.”

The appellate court unanimously found that the district court should have given a nominal damages instruction, and sent the case back to the District Court for another trial.

The judges disagreed, however, as to whether it was necessary to address the court’s failure to instruct on deliberate indifference to the need for food. One judge filed a dissenting opinion, arguing that such an instruction should have been given as well. But the majority opinion saw no need to address the question since it had already decided to rule for Taylor and remand the case for a new trial.