A New Day in Court
Out of the gate, Minnesota Law’s Civil Rights Appellate Clinic logs a victory in the U.S. Court of Appeals on behalf of survivors of a veteran who died in prison
The case had the hallmarks of a classic civil rights appeal. A young military veteran struggling with PTSD and mental illness died by suicide in a Georgia state prison after guards failed to conduct required safety checks. His family sued in U.S. District Court to hold officials responsible for violating his constitutional rights, and Georgia moved to have the case dismissed.
A student team from one of Minnesota Law’s newest clinics, the Civil Rights Appellate Clinic, took on the appeal as one of its inaugural cases and won. The main issue was whether the district court erred in denying the defendants’ motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit unanimously affirmed the ruling, denying the corrections officers qualified immunity and allowing the case to proceed.
The lawsuit, filed in 2022 on behalf of Andrew Campbell’s estate and surviving child, alleges violations of his Eighth Amendment rights by eight defendants—two prison guards and six supervisory officials in the Georgia Department of Corrections. It argues that they were deliberately indifferent to Campbell’s known high risk for suicide, regularly disregarded suicide protocol, and oversaw a prison that was understaffed and lacked sufficient training to prevent suicides.
This case embodies the mission of the clinic, says clinic director Elizabeth Bentley, visiting assistant professor of law. Through its seminar and casework, the clinic aims to help students develop appellate advocacy skills in state and federal courts while working to ensure that every individual has the opportunity to live as their fullest self, with dignity and respect.
“Now that the motion to dismiss is denied, our client has the opportunity to get a full and fair hearing of her claims in district court,” Bentley says. “She is seeking justice for Andrew for his family and daughter, and she is also trying to ensure that this doesn’t happen to another family. By bringing this claim, it puts pressure on the state to address the underlying issues and conditions that made it more likely that Andrew would not receive the care and supervision he needed to stay safe. That’s the goal.”
A team of five student attorneys spent the spring 2023 semester working on the appeal, doing legal research and collaborating on the brief. The clinic also collaborated on the case with local counsel Eric Fredrickson of Harman Law LLC in Atlanta.
Another aspect of the team’s efforts involved engaging in a mediation required by the Eleventh Circuit. The students worked together to prepare for the mediation. Then clinic student Ciara McManus traveled with Bentley to Georgia, where McManus met with the client, presented the case, and engaged in (unsuccessful) settlement discussions.
In August, Chief Judge William Pryor and Judges Robin Rosenbaum and Jill Pryor unanimously ruled in favor of the plaintiffs without holding oral arguments. The clinic team felt good that they had developed a strong argument, says 3L Earl Lin. But they still were pleasantly surprised when the panel ruled in the plaintiff’s favor, given the inherent difficulties of litigating qualified immunity cases.
“For us to get affirmed from a pretty conservative court with a unanimous outcome in our favor and just on the briefs in the case—it definitely felt like a vindication,” Lin says.
Lin enrolled in the clinic after working for more than five years as a paralegal on civil rights cases and now serves as a clinic student director. He especially appreciated gaining experience as a student attorney and helping develop the legal strategy. It’s also gratifying that the team’s work helped their client overcome the challenges of qualified immunity and opened the door for discovery, he says.
Minnesota Law’s 25-plus clinics provide students with varied hands-on learning experience. For 3L Tyler Blackmon, the civil rights clinic offered opportunities to focus on appellate law, an area he aims to pursue after graduation. Blackmon found it valuable to take the knowledge gained as a 1L and apply it to a real-world case, working as a team to make the strongest possible argument. And best of all, the work they poured into writing the brief ultimately helped their client pursue justice.
“This case is about real people and the real constitutional harms that Andrew experienced in the Georgia prison system,” Blackmon says. “It’s a learning experience for us students, but we’re representing clients with real problems who need legal expertise to help them navigate this complex legal system.”