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Whether an Inmate Has a Serious Medical Need Must Be Evaluated Objectively

Thomas Brennan, an inmate, slipped and fell on a wax concrete floor in prison, rupturing several discs in his neck and lower spine. He underwent neck surgery in September 2011 and was prescribed Vicodin for pain. The prison physician continued to prescribe narcotic pain medication for Brennan’s chronic pain. In June 2012, Brennan was transferred to another prison, where he submitted requests for medical treatment to have his pain medication renewed. He was evaluated by Dr. Dyjerlynn Lampley-Copeland three days after his prescriptions had run out. He told the doctor he was having pain and withdrawal symptoms, including hot and cold flashes, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, and sleeplessness, and asked her to prescribe narcotics. According to Brennan, Dr. Copeland reviewed his chart and told him that there was “nothing wrong with him but chronic pain syndrome,” and that the previous physician should not have “caved in” and prescribed narcotics, and that she would have to think about what to prescribe for him. Nine days later the doctor prescribed a 30-day course of Ultram, an opioid narcotic medication that is less potent than the previous prescription. When the prescription for Ultram ran out, Dr. Copeland refused to prescribe anything more than Tylenol and a muscle relaxant for pain, despite his complaints that only strong narcotics provided adequate pain relief.

Brennan filed a complaint under § 1983, claiming prison officials and medical providers had violated his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by cutting off his narcotic pain medication “cold turkey” and refusing to give him narcotics thereafter. Brennan v. Thomas, 780 Fed.Appx. 813 (11th Cir. 2019). He also claimed they forced him to work beyond his physical capabilities, in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The magistrate judge granted the defendants’ motions for summary judgment and Brennan appealed. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed.

The Eleventh Circuit noted, a plaintiff’s statement that he experienced some pain or discomfort is not enough; the prisoner’s pain must be objectively so severe that the failure to treat it deprives him “of the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities.” However, the court found that the evidence here does not support the claim that the medical defendants intentionally disregarded a serious medical need. There was no evidence of an objectively serious medical need—according to the available records. Furthermore, his own affidavit testimony stated that, after reviewing his medical chart and imaging, Dr. Copeland did not believe that his medical condition was serious. Dr. Copeland also testified that it was her medical opinion that treatment with narcotic pain medication was not appropriate, at least not on a long-term basis.

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