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DOC deliberate indifference claim remanded to district court

December 17, 2018

Finding it is reasonable to infer that a former unit manager at the Putnamville Correctional Facility knew an inmate was in danger from gang violence but did nothing, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a grant of summary judgment and remanded the case to the Southern Indiana District Court.

Dylan Sinn was attacked twice in 2014 while he was an inmate of the Indiana Department of Correction and housed at Putnamville. He claimed he was targeted by members of the Vice Lords because he is an “unaffiliated [w]hite, clean-cut, tall, nerdy guy with glasses.” An inmate who is not a member of any gang, he said, becomes a “pretty easy target.”

The first attack happened April 24 when Sinn was punched in the face several times in a bathroom. He was subsequently moved to a different dormitory but was threatened by members of same gang, the Vice Lords.

Sinn told John Brush, former Putnamville unit manager, about the threat the next morning. Brush knew Sinn, knew about the first attack and asked how he was doing. Sinn claimed he told Brush that he was going to get beat again. Brush then told Sinn to send him a letter detailing his concerns for his personal safety.

In the letter, Sinn did not specifically mention “gangs” or “Vice Lords” but he did note his physical differences with his attackers and that he was not affiliated with any gang. “I am by myself and I’m a white minority … .”

Although the court record does not establish when Brush read Sinn’s letter and Brush cannot remember receiving or reading it, he did concede at his deposition that the letter probably came to him.

Sinn was attacked again April 30, suffering a broken nose, jaw and leg. Investigators found the assailants, and one previously had been identified by the IDOC as a gang member. 

Following his release in 2015, Sinn filed a lawsuit against several IDOC officials, including Brush. He claimed the prison officials were deliberately indifferent and violated the Eighth Amendment by failing to protect him from gang violence at Putnamville. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana granted summary judgment to Brush and two other defendants.

Sinn challenged to the 7th Circuit the district court’s conclusion that Brush and the two others were not deliberately indifferent. In Dylan Sinn v. Bruce Lemmon, Commissioner, et al., 18-1724, the 7th Circuit found Brush had “subjective knowledge” that Sinn was at risk of harm.

The appellate panel noted it is undisputed that Brush had a conversation with Sinn about the first attack  and that Sinn followed Brush’s instructions and submitted a letter describing his concerns about being attacked again.

Also, the circuit court held “it is reasonable to infer” that Brush received the letter with enough time to response before the second attack. And, while Sinn never referenced “gang” and Vice Lords in the letter, he did mention “white minority” and being unaffiliated with a gang made him vulnerable to another attack.

“Sinn’s reference to his unaffiliated status in particular shows his fear was more specific than a general complaint about racial tensions in prison,” Judge Joel Flaum wrote for the court. “In short, it is reasonable to infer, based on Brush’s admitted understanding of gang violence at Putnamville, that Brush understood Sinn’s letter as describing a fear of retaliation by the same gang that attacked him on April 24. In response, however, Brush did nothing.”

Brush insisted he did not have sufficient knowledge to act with deliberate indifference because Sinn’s complaints were not specific. However, the 7th Circuit pointed out that Sinn presented evidence that Brush was aware of the general patterns of gang violence at Putnamville and knew Sinn had been attacked. Also, Sinn talked to Brush about the attack and sent him a letter describing his fears of being attacked again.

“It is thus reasonable to infer that Brush knew about a specific risk Sinn faced of the Vice Lords attacking him again,” Flaum wrote. “This is so even though Brush may not have known who the individual attackers would be. Sinn has therefore raised a triable issue of fact as to whether Brush had subjective knowledge that Sinn face a substantial risk of harm before the second attack on April 30, 2014.”

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