In lawsuits stemming from what the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California described as “a horrifying sequence of events regarding their treatment while in custody for immigration violations,” the court dismissed tort claims against DHS and individual federal officials. Baires v. United States, No. C-09-5171-CRB, 2010 WL 3515749 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 8, 2010) (Breyer). This case, though only tangentially related to crimmigration issues, provides a frightening glimpse into the atrocities that sometimes occur in immigration prisons.
According to the court’s order Juan Carlos Baires, an HIV positive individual detained on suspicion of being out of status, repeatedly informed officials at the multiple prisons where he was held of his medical condition. Baires, 2010 WL 3515749, at *2. For almost one month officials at the Santa Rita County Jail actually gave him daily HIV medications. “These administrations continued until October 20, 2008, when Baires was transferred to the Lerdo Detention Facility.” Baires, 2010 WL 3515749, *2. The transfer form that sheriff’s officials gave to Lerdo officials “erroneously ‘indicated that Baires took no medications’.” Baires, 2010 WL 3515749, *2. Despite repeated conversations between Baires’s immigration attorney and an ICE agent in which the agent promised to investigate the matter Baires did not receive HIV medications. He eventually died while in custody. Baires, 2010 WL 3515749, at *3. Baires’s mother sued.
Teofilo Miranda suffered a similar plight but without the fatal consequence. Arrested by immigration officials four days prior to an appointment to obtain a prescription for HIV medications, Miranda was transferred to the Santa Clara Jail in Santa Clara, California where a treating doctor diagnosed him as having a low T-cell count and scheduled an appointment with an HIV specialist but did not prescribe anti-retroviral therapy. Baires v. United States, 2010 WL 3515749, at *3.
“[F]ive days before his scheduled HIV appointment, Miranda was transferred to Lerdo” but “medical records from Santa Clara, including the critical results of his blood work, did not accompany him to Lerdo.” Baires, 2010 WL 3515749, at *4. The same doctor who declined to give Baires HIV medications “declined to give Miranda any HIV medications ‘because [Miranda] had not brought any with him from his last facility.’” Baires, 2010 WL 3515749, at *4. After Miranda’s condition deteriorated significantly he was taken to Kern Medical Center where a U.S. Army doctor assisted Miranda. “Apparently the same day, Miranda was released.” Baires, 2010 WL 3515749, at *4. He went to a San Francisco hospital the next day and obtained anti-retroviral medication within ten days. He remains alive.
Baires and Miranda sued several federal government officials including Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, one of her Special Advisors at ICE, John Torres, and the head of the DHS Immigration Health Services, Doctor Timothy Shack. The individual defendants (as opposed to the United States government) moved to dismiss based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937 (2009). In Iqbal the Court held that a complaint may proceed only if it states a claim for relief that is “plausible on its face.” “According to the Supreme Court, ‘a claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.’” Baires, 2010 WL 3515749 (quoting Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949-50).
The individual defendants argued that Baires and Miranda failed to meet Iqbal’s facial plausibility requirement because the facts alleged in their complaint indicate “‘that the federal government has no day-to-day operational oversight of the county facilities where the detainees were held.’” Baires, 2010 WL 3515749, at *6. In the district court’s words, “the Individual Defendants argue that there are no factual allegations relating to how their individual actions caused harm to Plaintiffs.” Baires, 2010 WL 3515749, at *6.
The district court in large part agrees with the defendants’ argument. The facts alleged in the complaint, the court suggests, undermine Baires and Miranda’s attempt at imposing liability on these defendants because the facts make clear that ICE detains so many people that high-ranking officials cannot can not be thought to be “aware, at all times, of the status of each and every detainee.” Baires, 2010 WL 3515749, at *7. Without factual allegations that these individual high-ranking defendants were aware of Baires and Miranda’s conditions, the court goes on, “their simple failure to correct those conditions is not sufficient to state a claim for relief.” Baires, 2010 WL 3515749, at *7.
Baires and Miranda separately sued the United States government for tort liability under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2671. “The law is clear that the United States is not liable under the FTCA for torts committed by independent contractors. However, where a third party acts as the agent of a Federal Agency, the Government can be held liable under the FTCA.” Baires, 2010 WL 3515749, at *10. A third party will be considered an agent of the federal government “where the Government is able ‘to control the detailed physical performance of the contractor’ and supervise its ‘day-to-day operations.’” Baires, 2010 WL 3515749, at *10 (quoting Logue v. United States, 412 U.S. 521, 528 (1973)).
To show that it did not control the prison officials or medical providers who saw Baires and Miranda the government submitted a copy of an intergovernmental service agreement—essentially a contract that DHS enters into with all public and private entities that are involved in immigration detention—which imposes financial responsibility for medical treatment on prison officials. Baires, 2010 WL 3515749, at *11. This, combined with the lack of an allegation in the complaint “of day-to-day supervision or detailed oversight of detention operations,” was enough to defeat Baires and Miranda’s claim of tort liability against the federal government.
Reforms of the immigration prison system will have to wait one more day.