Lisa Mitchell has lived her entire life as a woman. Yet when she got to prison, she was effectively denied critical hormone replacement therapy. It took Mitchell more than a year to secure all of the sign-offs necessary, and once she did, the medical officer—Dr. Kevin Kallas—refused to begin treatment on the grounds that she was due to be released in less than a month.
Once paroled, Mitchell was prevented from expressing her gender identity, much less obtaining treatment, by her probation officers, despite having obtained a formal recommendation from prison medical officials. And this is despite notes in her file attesting that treatment was necessary and would reduce her risk of recidivism.
Mitchell sued Kallas as well as psychological services unit supervisor Dr. Dawn Laurent and three parole officers for denying her medical treatment under the Eighth Amendment. The United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin allowed Mitchell’s claims against the two doctors, but refused to let her proceed against the parole officers, as the obligation to provide medical care ended with her release.
The court then ruled for the two doctors on summary judgment, finding that neither was deliberately indifferent to her medical needs and thus both were protected by “qualified immunity.” Qualified immunity is the legal doctrine that shields government officials from being held accountable for wrongdoing as long as they don’t violate clearly established rights, a.k.a. rights that the officials should reasonably have known about. Part of the district court’s rationale was that there was no “clearly established” right to hormone treatment.
On appeal, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which hears appeals from Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, decided this week that while Laurent, the psychologist, didn’t have enough of a role to proceed against, Mitchell should be allowed to sue the parole officers and take Kallas to trial. The parole officers may not have been required to provide treatment, the court noted, but preventing Mitchell from seeking it herself could most certainly be unconstitutional.
The Seventh Circuit shot down the notion that gender dysphoria is somehow so distinct from other serious conditions that the Supreme Court would have to address the topic before prison officials could be found at fault for denying treatment.
In deciding whether a right was clearly established, it is essential to assess the case at the right level of specificity. But this particularity requirement does not go so far as to mandate a mirror-image precedent from the Supreme Court or this court. As we put it recently, the Eighth Amendment duty “need not be litigated and then established disease by disease or injury by injury.”
I nominate the above for most elegant legal clapback of the year. It’s also a huge victory for trans rights.
All too often, courts have failed transgender prisoners seeking adequate medical care, treating their needs as lesser. Now, transgender people around the country who have been or are being denied care by prison officials or prevented from seeking it by parole officials now have a unanimous appellate court opinion to cite to make their case. It can also be deployed against discrimination against transgender people seeking medical care in other settings, such as the workplace. The appeals court sent the case back to the district court, which is now bound to consider Mitchell’s claims against Kallas and reevaluate her suit against the parole officers.