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Leiser v. Kloth

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

August 1, 2019

Jeffrey D. Leiser, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Karen Kloth, Correctional Sergeant, et al., Defendants-Appellants.

          Argued September 5, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. No. 3:15-cv-00768-slc - Stephen L. Crocker, Magistrate Judge.

          Before Easterbrook, Hamilton, and Scudder, Circuit Judges.


         Jeffrey Leiser was an inmate at the Wisconsin Stanley Correctional Institution where Sergeant Karen Kloth was employed. Leiser, who was later diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder while at Stanley, alleged that beginning in 2013 he self-reported his disorder to Kloth and "informed" her not to stand directly behind him because doing so triggered his mental health symptoms. He claims Kloth did not comply with his request but instead increased the amount of time she stood behind him while patrolling common areas. Leiser filed this suit against Kloth, her supervisor, and the warden, claiming that Kloth's behavior violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The district court denied the defendants' motion for summary judgment after determining they were not entitled to qualified immunity because Leiser had a well-established right to be free from intentionally inflicted psychological harm. The defendants filed this interlocutory appeal, asking us to resolve the legal question of whether they were, in fact, entitled to qualified immunity. We reverse. Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity. At the relevant times, it did not violate clearly established constitutional law for non-medical correctional staff to refuse to provide a prisoner with what amounts to a medical accommodation that had not been ordered by medical staff and the need for which was not obvious to a layperson.

         I. Facts

         We construe the evidence in the light most favorable to Leiser as the non-moving party. See Lovett v. Herbert, 907 F.3d 986, 990 (7th Cir. 2018). At all times relevant, Jeffrey Leiser was an inmate in the custody of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, housed at the Stanley Correctional Institution. Sergeant Karen Kloth was a correctional officer who worked in Leiser's unit. Kloth reported to Unit Manager Paula Stoudt and in turn to Warden Reed Richardson.

         Leiser was housed in Stanley's mental health unit. He struggled with numerous mental health issues, including at times suicidal tendencies. Especially relevant to this case, the psychological services staff eventually diagnosed Leiser with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ("PTSD") stemming from a sexual attack he suffered as a child. Leiser alleges that because of this attack, when someone stands directly behind him, he experiences flashbacks and may become angry, knock his head against a wall, break out in a sweat, yell, scream, and want to hurt whoever triggered the episode. Leiser told staff in the Psychological Services Unit he was experiencing PTSD symptoms as early as October 2014, but he was not diagnosed with the disorder until some time in the spring of 2015.

         While at Stanley, Leiser met regularly with staff from the Psychological Services Unit. On March 30, 2015, he told his treating clinician that he could not tolerate people standing directly behind him and that his anxiety spiked when he was waiting in line for medications in the Health Services Unit. His psychiatrist then arranged for him to receive his medications directly from nursing staff, rather than after waiting in line, to avoid this discomfort. Leiser did not receive any other accommodation for his PTSD from the psychological staff. Stanley's Psychological Services Unit does not inform correctional officers of an inmate's clinical diagnosis if no accommodation is required.

         At some point in 2013, well before his diagnosis, Leiser noticed that Sergeant Karen Kloth began standing behind him in common areas, close enough, he says, to trigger his PTSD. Leiser told Kloth that he suffered from PTSD and that he could not tolerate anyone standing so close behind him. Kloth responded by telling Leiser he would just have to "deal with it" because she could stand where she wanted.

         After this exchange, Leiser claims, Kloth increased the amount of time she stood directly behind him. Leiser submitted declarations from three other inmates who testified that Kloth stood directly behind Leiser "every time" she worked and that she would stand behind him until he started shaking and sweating. Another inmate, Lor en Leiser (Leiser's brother) told Kloth that she should not stand behind Leiser because of his PTSD, explained his symptoms, and that it would be her fault if he "snapped on her." Leiser's witnesses testified that after Kloth stood behind Leiser, he would dump his tray and retreat to his cell where he would shake, sweat, and talk to himself. Leiser indicated he began skipping meals when Kloth was on duty to avoid the risk of experiencing his PTSD symptoms.

         Notes from treating clinicians say that Leiser was having problems with unit staff standing behind him, but they do not indicate he ever identified it was Kloth. Leiser eventually complained in writing about Kloth's behavior to her supervisors, Stoudt and Richardson. Though the written complaints to Stoudt did not indicate Kloth was engaging in conduct which triggered his PTSD, the letter he wrote to Warden Richardson specifically requested that Kloth be prohibited from standing behind him for that reason. Neither Stoudt nor Richardson acted on these complaints.

         Leiser sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on November 30, 2015. Among other claims, Leiser alleged that Kloth was intentionally causing him psychological harm by repeatedly attempting to trigger his PTSD, which he said violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments. He also sued Stoudt and Richardson for failing to protect him from Kloth's behavior.

         Following a mandatory screening of the in forma pauperis complaint under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, the district court permitted Leiser to proceed on the Eighth Amendment claim against Kloth and failure-to-protect claims against Stoudt and Richardson. The defendants later moved for summary judgment. They argued that Kloth's behavior did not rise to the level of cruel and unusual punishment, and even if it did, the evidence did not establish that the defendants knew that Leiser's PTSD was triggered when Kloth stood behind him. Regardless, they argued, defendants were entitled to ...

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