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Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirms dismissal of transgender Georgia prison inmate’s civil rights lawsuit against prison officials for failing to protect her from sexual assault and physical attacks

On October 18, 2021, in Cox v. Nobles, et al, No. 20-11425, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district order dismissing a transgender Georgia prison inmate’s 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights case against prison wardens and other employees at three Georgia state prisons for their alleged failure to protect her from sexual assaults and physical attacks by other inmates. The plaintiff claimed that the prison officials’ actions, and failure to act, violated her Eighth Amendment right not to be subjected to “cruel and unusual punishments,”, made applicable to state governments by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The district court dismissed the complaint on grounds of qualified immunity. The Eleventh Circuit noted that the Eighth Amendment requires prison officials to “take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of the inmates,” quoting from Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 832 (1994), which articulated a three-element test for such claims. First, the plaintiff must show that she was “incarcerated under conditions posing a substantial risk of serious harm.” Second, the plaintiff must show that the “prison official [had] a sufficiently culpable state of mind,” amounting to “deliberate indifference.” Third, and finally, the plaintiff must demonstrate causation—that the constitutional violation caused her injuries. The Eleventh Circuit concluded that the plaintiff had not adequately alleged “deliberate indifference” by the prison officials, an element which the Court noted has both subjective and objective components, requiring that the plaintiff establish both that (1) the defendant actually (subjectively) knew that [the prisoner] faced a substantial risk of serious harm and that (2) the defendant disregarded that known risk by failing to respond to it in an (objectively) reasonable manner. The Court concluded that two of the defendants lacked subjective knowledge of the substantial risk of serious harm, while the claim against a third defendant failed because the plaintiff failed to sufficiently allege that the defendant’s response to an initial physical altercation between the plaintiff and a cellmate, which resulted in the plaintiff being moved to a different cell in the same dorm, was objectively unreasonable.