We see a lot of opinions issued by federal appellate courts in which a prisoner representing himself or herself challenges some policy, procedure, or action relating to his or her confinement.  Far more often than not, the District Court rejects the plaintiff’s claim and the appellate court affirms.  Thus, today we are writing about Mutschler v. SCI Albion, No. 10-4242 (3d Cir. Sept. 27, 2011), because the pro se plaintiff convinced the Third Circuit to reverse a part of the District Court’s ruling that had granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss.

The plaintiff was a prisoner at defendant State Correctional Institution (“SCI”) Albion.  He filed a civil rights complaint against Sandy Malena, a registered nurse at SCI Albion, and Maxine Overton, the Chief Healthcare Administrator.  The basis of his complaint was that the defendants issued him a latex catheter even though they allegedly knew that he was allergic to latex.  Specifically, the plaintiff alleged that he informed the medical department about his allergy when he arrived at SCI Albion.  In October 2008, Malena gave him a catheter that contained latex.  The plaintiff used it overnight and he claimed that it caused him pain and blisters on his penis, which led to scarring, erectile problems, and depression.  As a result, the plaintiff filed a grievance and informed Overton about the incident, and she told him that it would not occur again.

In March 2009, Malena provided the plaintiff with a latex-containing catheter, which the plaintiff used.  The plaintiff claimed that it caused a burning sensation.  One month later, a different nurse gave him a catheter that contained latex, but he did not use it once he realized it had latex after he read the packaging.  Plaintiff then filed a civil rights action in the Western District of Pennsylvania against Overton and Malena in which he alleged violations of the Fifth Amendment, the Eighth Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  The District Court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss.  The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s Fifth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, and ADA claims, but reversed as to his Eighth Amendment claim.

The Third Circuit explained that to establish an Eighth Amendment claim for cruel and unusual punishment, a prisoner must prove:  1) that defendants were deliberately indifferent to his medical needs, and 2) those needs were serious.  The court further explained that simple medical malpractice is not deliberate indifference and that deference is afforded to prison medical officials in diagnosing and treating patients.  However, the court pointed out that an Eighth Amendment claim does not require the defendant to have acted intentionally to inflict pain.  Rather, the key test is whether the officials acted – or failed to act – despite having knowledge of a substantial risk of serious harm to the prisoner.

Turning to the plaintiff’s allegations, the Third Circuit ruled that they “may entitle” the plaintiff to relief.  Specifically, the court reasoned that “it is plausible that Malena knew of [plaintiff’s] latex allergy based on his medical file and the 2008 incident, and that Malena persisted on issuing him a catheter she knew he was allergic to and knew had previously caused him pain, blistering, and scarring on his penis.  Additionally, Overton knew of [plaintiff’s] allergy and its resultant pain and risk of permanent injury.  Thus, the pleadings plausibly suggest Overton allowed the issuance of a latex catheter despite this knowledge.  [Plaintiff], therefore, made the bare showing to survive a motion to dismiss.”  After explaining why the District Court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s other claims was correct, the Third Circuit vacated the lower court’s order to the extent it dismissed the Eighth Amendment claims and remanded the case to the District Court for further proceedings.

Judge Garth dissented, stating that “I cannot conclude that [plaintiff] has alleged a constitutional violation.”