In Hamby v. Hammond, published May 2, 2016, the 9th Circuit affirmed a district court decision granting prison officials summary judgment in a prisoner's lawsuit accusing them of violating his 8th Amendment rights by deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs. The prisoner suffered an umbilical hernia. Over the next year and a half, he was seen by multiple medical professionals who opined he could be treated by monitoring, or "watchful waiting," without surgery. He was treated in this manner until he filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. section 1983, alleging the lack of surgery violated his rights under the 8th Amendment. He obtained a preliminary injunction ordering referral to a surgeon, who ultimately performed the surgery. He continued the suit, seeking damages for the pain he suffered before surgery.
Two of the three judges who ruled on the case concluded that the district court properly granted summary judgment, because the officials were entitled to qualified immunity. The same standard of qualified immunity applies to 8th Amendment cases as applies to other constitutional-right cases: Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, at the time the prison officials acted was it beyond debate that their conduct violated the Constitution? If the answer is "no," the officials are entitled to qualified immunity. In a medical deliberate-indifference action, the question is whether, given existing case law at the time, it was beyond debate that the prison officials pursued a medically unreasonable course of treatment by declining to provide the plaintiff the medical treatment he sought. A difference of medical opinion is insufficient to raise a triable issue of fact on that issue. The defendants presented expert opinion that the treatment of the plaintiff's hernia was appropriate. The plaintiff presented contrary medical evidence. Case law demonstrated that non-surgical treatment of a reducible hernia was not indisputably unconstitutional in circumstances like these. The officials were therefore entitled to qualified immunity.
A dissenting judge opined that evidence the prisoner's many complaints were not properly examined raised a triable issue of fact on deliberate indifference.