November 15, 2017


U.S. Court of Appeals Unanimous, Published Opinion in Eighth Amendment Lawsuit Stands; Cohen Milstein’s Pro Bono Client Can Now Pursue Trial

WASHINGTON, D.C. - On November 13, 2017, the United States Supreme Court denied defendants’ petition for certiorari in Phillip v. Scinto (16-1545), thereby allowing a federal appeals court’s unanimous opinion to stand in an Eighth Amendment lawsuit involving the quality of medical care inmates receive in federal prisons. 

On November 4, 2016, in a published opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overturned a lower court’s summary judgment ruling and established several important rulings for prisoners in Eighth Amendment lawsuits.

At the time of the events giving rise to his lawsuit, Mr. Scinto was a 54 year-old federal prison inmate in North Carolina. He suffered from insulin-dependent diabetes, hepatitis C, anemia, gallstones, and hypertension.  In 2008, as counsel to himself, Mr. Scinto sued, among others, his prison doctor, prison camp administrator, and the prison warden for failing to provide him with adequate medical care in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment: in particular, Mr. Scinto alleged, among other things, that his prison doctor denied him his supplemental doses of insulin and failed to provide him with a medical assessment after he called in an emergency related to his gallstones.

The district court entered summary judgment against Mr. Scinto in Paul Scinto, Sr. v. Warden Patricia Stansberry, et al., Case No. 5:10-ct-03165-D, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of North Carolina, at Raleigh (Chief District Judge James C. Dever III), ruling that no reasonable jury could return a verdict in his favor.  Mr. Scinto appealed.

In 2015, the Fourth Circuit appointed Adam H. Farra, an associate in Cohen Milstein’s Securities Litigation & Investor Protection practice, to represent Mr. Scinto as appellate counsel. Mr. Farra was a law clerk for the Honorable Andre M. Davis, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, 2013 – 2014. Mr. Farra briefed and argued the appeal, convincing the three judge panel to reverse the district court’s ruling.

“I am pleased that the Supreme Court denied certiorari and allowed the Fourth Circuit’s unanimous, important, and precedent-setting rulings to stand, and – most importantly – that Mr. Scinto will finally be able to present his case to a jury, almost ten years after he filed his lawsuit,” stated Mr. Farra.

The Fourth Circuit’s reversal made several important rulings for Mr. Scinto and prisoners in federal and state prisons throughout North Carolina, as well as Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and South Carolina, including:

  • The court ruled that denying Mr. Scinto even a single dose of insulin “may be sufficient alone to meet the” Eighth Amendment cruel and unusual punishment standard, and that “the act of withholding insulin from an insulin-dependent diabetic alone creates a serious injury or a substantial risk of such injury” as a matter of law.
  • The court ruled that “[a] juror could reasonably infer that failing to treat, for two to five days, an inmate who is vomiting blood and experiencing evident physical distress creates a substantial risk that serious bodily injury will result or has already occurred,” and that Mr. Scinto’s evidence of certain “outward signs” of his need for medical attention – he was vomiting blood and doubled over in pain – gave rise to “to an inference of deliberate indifference sufficient for” establishing an Eighth Amendment cruel and unusual punishment claim.
  • The court further provided valuable guidance for future Eighth Amendment cases, holding for the first time in its circuit that, under the Eighth Amendment, prison officials must provide inmates with a special diet if such an accommodation is medically necessary.

The Fourth Circuit held that Mr. Scinto could present his claim to a jury, and it remanded the case to federal court in North Carolina for trial.  With the Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari, Mr. Scinto may now pursue this trial in 2018 under guidance of court-appointed trial counsel. 

The Fourth Circuit’s panel of three judges consisted of James A. Wynn Jr., appointed by President Barack Obama, who wrote the opinion, Judge Paul V. Niemeyer, appointed by President George H.W. Bush, and Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, appointed by President Bill Clinton.  The opinion was unanimous.

About Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC

Founded in 1969, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC is recognized as one of the premier law firms in the country handling major, complex plaintiff-side litigation. With more than 90 attorneys, Cohen Milstein has offices in Washington, DC, Chicago, IL, New York, NY, Palm Beach Gardens, FL, Philadelphia, PA., and Raleigh, NC.