10th Circuit SpotlightAgainst the backdrop of nationwide protests over police misconduct and a national debate over the scope of qualified immunity from constitutional claims, the Tenth Circuit addressed correction officers’ qualified and sovereign immunity defenses in Sawyers v. Norton, — F.3d –, 2020 WL 3424927 (10th Cir. June 23, 2020). The circuit court affirmed the district court’s rulings rejecting the officers’ qualified immunity defense to Section 1983 claims and rejecting a sovereign immunity defense to tort claims brought under state law.

Factual and Procedural Background

Plaintiff George Sawyers set fire to an art gallery, believing that God had told him to do so.  While he was a pretrial detainee in the Rio Grande County Jail, he was so delusional that, among other troubling acts of self-harm, he removed his right eyeball from its socket to prevent it from being “harvested by witches.” He then sued: (1) the county sheriff and three on-duty corrections officers in their individual capacities for deliberate indifference to his medical needs under 42 U.S.C §1983; (2) the sheriff in his official capacity under Section 1983 for failure to train and supervise the three officers; and (3) all four defendants in their individual and official capacities for negligence under Colorado law. The court observed that the official capacity claims were really claims against the county.

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