CZW successfully defended the Woodward County Board of County Commissioners and Woodward County Sheriff in Wright v. Woodward County. In Wright, the plaintiff, the Estate of a deceased inmate, brought suit alleging failure to protect the inmate.
The following background is relevant for a complete understanding of this case: during a campaign for a sales tax to build a new jail, campaign literature quoted the Sheriff as stating that the then-Woodward County Jail was among the most dangerous jails in Oklahoma. The sales tax was passed and a new jail was approved. The old jail had been consistently over-capacity in its number of inmates being housed. Despite the over-capacity of the jail, there was little history of inmate-on-inmate violence. While the new jail was being built, jail staff, in an attempt to separate two arrestees who were arguing as they entered the jail, placed arrestee Wright in a jail holding cell that was full. As the arrestee was being placed in the jail cell, one of the inmates allegedly told the detention officer that if the arrestee was placed in that jail cell, the inmates would cause physical harm to him. The detention officer, who denied hearing that statement, but admitted that the inmates were protesting the addition of another person, told the inmates to be patient for a few minutes until he could process another inmate and then he would find a place for the new arrestee. Shortly after the detention officer left the area, the inmates attacked the arrestee.
At the summary judgment phase, the Sheriff presented evidence which included sworn testimony that there had not been any inmate-on-inmate violence prior to this incident and that the Sheriff had taken several steps in attempt to alleviate overcrowding of the jail including the building of the new jail and reaching out to other counties to house inmates as necessary. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma denied qualified immunity to the Sheriff, finding that the campaign literature indicated that he knew the jail was a dangerous place and that he failed to take adequate steps to protect the inmates. The Sheriff appealed the denial of qualified immunity.
On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed the District Court’s denial of qualified immunity, finding that the Sheriff was entitled to qualified immunity and ordered the District Court to grant judgment to the Sheriff. The Tenth Circuit stated that the issue of qualified immunity must be addressed on a case-specific basis and found that there was no evidence to support a finding that the Sheriff knew of any imminent danger to the inmate and also determined that he had taken reasonable steps to alleviate the overcrowding and protect the physical well-being of the inmates. For complete opinion, click here.