West v. Atkins

Decided on June 20, 1988; 487 US 42


I. ISSUES II. CASE SUMMARY III. AMICI CURIAE IV. DECISION V. WIN OR LOSS?
I. ISSUES:

A. Issues Discussed: State-action.

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does a physician who is under contract with the State to provide medical services to inmates at a state-prison hospital on a part-time basis act "under color of state law," within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. 1983, when he treats an inmate?
II. CASE SUMMARY:

A. Background:

"Respondent, a private physician under contract with North Carolina to provide orthopedic services at a state-prison hospital on a part-time basis, treated petitioner for a leg injury sustained while petitioner was incarcerated in state prison.

Petitioner was barred by state law from employing or electing to see a physician of his own choosing. Alleging that he was given inadequate medical treatment, petitioner sued respondent in Federal District Court under 42 USC § 1983 for violation of his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, relying on Estelle v Gamble, 429 US 97.

The court entered summary judgment for respondent, holding that, as a "contract physician," respondent was not acting "under color of state law," a jurisdictional prerequisite for a § 1983 action. The Court of Appeals affirmed."

On certiorari the Supreme Court reversed and remanded.
B. Counsel of Record:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Unavailable Unavailable
III. AMICI CURIAE:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation et al. by John Powell, Norman Smith, Elizabeth Alexander, Edward I. Koren, and Alvin J. Bronstein; and for the American Public Health Association by William J. Rold.

Adam Stein argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the brief was Richard E. Giroux.

Jacob L. Safron, Special Deputy Attorney General of North Carolina, argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief was Lacy H. Thornburg, Attorney General.
IV. THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION:

"A physician who is under contract with the State to provide medical services to inmates at a state-prison hospital on a part-time basis acts 'under color of state law,' within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. 1983, when he treats an inmate. Respondent's conduct in treating petitioner is fairly attributable to the State. The State has an obligation, under the Eighth Amendment and state law, to provide adequate medical care to those whom it has incarcerated. The State has delegated that function to physicians such as respondent, and defers to their professional judgment. This analysis is not altered by the fact that respondent was paid by contract and was not on the state payroll nor by the fact that respondent was not required to work exclusively for the prison. It is the physician's function within the state system, not the precise terms of his employment, that is determinative."

The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals judgment.

Justice Vote: 9 Pro vs. 0 Con
 
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • White, B. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J.P. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S.D. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Pro (Joined majority opinion, wrote concurring opinion)
V. A WIN OR LOSS FOR THE ACLU?

The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged reversal of the Court of Appeals Judgment; the Supreme Court reversed in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.