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April 8, 2015
  Makdessi v. Fields -- Fourth Circuit
Headline: Fourth Circuit Rules Deliberate Indifference Can Be Established with Only Circumstantial Evidence

Areas of Law: Constitutional Law, Criminal Law

Issues Presented: Whether Makdessi actually preserved his appeal. Whether prison officials, who were the subjects of the appeal, were deliberately indifferent to the substantial risk of harm Makdessi faced while incarcerated.

Brief Summary: Adib Makedessi is serving a life sentence for murdering his wife and lover; then fleeing to Russia with the $700,000 insurance payout he collected after their deaths. Makdessi brought suit, alleging that prison officials at the Virginia Department of Corrections were deliberately indifferent to the numerous complaints he lodged regarding the physical and sexual abuse he was suffering while imprisoned. Makdessi was repeatedly raped and assaulted by his cellmate and was not transferred to a new cell despite frequent requests to the officers on duty. The U.S. District Court adopted the magistrate judge's recommendation that because the prison officials did not actually know of the substantial risk of harm Makdessi faced, his deliberate indifference claim could not succeed.

On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit first ruled that Makdessi failed to preserve his appeal against the prison officers because he failed to object to the magistrate judge's ruling that they should be dismissed from the case. The court then reviewed Makdessi's contention that the district court's opinion failed to consider whether the degree of subjective knowledge necessary to prove deliberated indifference could be shown through circumstantial evidence instead of just by direct knowledge of the risk. The court cited Farmer v. Brennan in support of its ruling that failure to give formal notice of the substantial risk is not dispositive if it can be shown through circumstantial evidence that the defendants knew about the risk and failed to do anything to protect the inmate. The Fourth Circuit then listed various facts from the record that could have sufficed to show there was enough circumstantial evidence for the court to reasonably believe the officers knew about the serious risk Makdessi faced but failed to protect him.

Finding that the district court failed to appreciate that Makdessi could have proven his case based on the provided circumstantial evidence, the court vacated the dismissal of the deliberate indifference claims against the remaining defendants and remanded for further review.

Judge Shedd wrote a dissenting opinion arguing that the magistrate and district court judges properly analyzed Makdessi's Eighth Amendment claim. Judge Shedd disagreed with the majority on the standard of review. In his opinion, the standard applied by the majority was more like a summary judgment review than the proper standard of accepting the trial judge's factual findings unless they are clearly erroneous. Judge Shedd argued that the majority failed to take into account the factual findings determined by the lower court, and the burden Makdessi held in proving his Eighth Amendment claim. Judge Shedd further found that the fact that the district court opinion noted that deliberate indifference can be shown through circumstantial evidence demonstrates that the lower court applied the correct standard. Judge Shedd also disagreed with the majority's decision to remand, stating that the record shows the judge below already considered the evidence under the proper legal standard and made the appropriate factual findings in concluding Makdessi did not meet his burden.

To read the full text of this opinion, please click here.

Panel: Judges Wynn, Motz, and Shedd

Argument Date: 10/28/2014

Date of Issued Opinion: 03/12/2015

Docket Number: No. 13-7606

Decided: Vacated and remanded by published opinion.

Case Alert Author: Michele Hayes, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: ARGUED: Stephen William Kiehl, COVINGTON & BURLING LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellant. Trevor Stephen Cox, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF VIRGINIA, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: Daniel Suleiman, COVINGTON & BURLING LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellant. Mark R. Herring, Attorney General of Virginia, Cynthia E. Hudson, Chief Deputy Attorney General, Stuart A. Raphael, Solicitor General of Virginia, Linda L. Bryant, Deputy Attorney General, Richard C. Vorhis, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Kate E. Dwyre, Assistant Attorney General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF VIRGINIA, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellees.

Author of Opinion: Judge Wynn

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 04/08/2015 08:11 PM     4th Circuit  

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