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Johnson v. Epps

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Northern Division

September 3, 2014

DEENA JOHNSON, as Representative of the Estate and Wrongful Death Heirs of Sammy O'Neal Johnson Plaintiff,


LINDA R. ANDERSON, Magistrate Judge.

This matter came before the Court on the Motion for Summary Judgment Based on Qualified Immunity filed by Christopher Epps, Earnest Lee, James Holman and Dr. Gloria Perry (the "State Defendants") and the Plaintiff's Rule 56(d) Motion for Continuance to Conduct Qualified Immunity-Related Discovery.[1] The Undersigned has carefully reviewed the Motions, the Responses and Replies, and the documents submitted in support of those Motions by the parties. Having done so, it is the opinion of the Undersigned that, for the reasons more fully discussed below, the Plaintiff's Motion for Discovery should be granted, under the limited terms described in this Report and Recommendation, and the Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment should be denied, without prejudice to their right to re-urge their request for this relief after immunity-related discovery has been completed.


Construing, as it must, the Plaintiff's allegations in the light most favorable to her, this Report and Recommendation is based on the following facts. The Plaintiff, Deena Johnson, is the former wife of Sammy O'Neal Johnson, who died on August 12, 2012, while in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections. Immediately prior to the events that form the basis of the action, Sammy Johnson was incarcerated at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, Mississippi. Johnson was a diabetic who required extensive monitoring and daily medication for that condition, and he had been housed at the institution's medical unit. On or about July 25, 2012, Johnson was moved to the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl, Mississippi. According to the Plaintiff, Johnson's records indicate that it was ordered that he be placed in the Chronic Care unit, but, instead, he was housed in the general population.

When Johnson arrived at CMCF, he informed the control unit guards that he needed to have his blood sugar checked and insulin administered. He also called the Plaintiff to inform her that he had been moved and that he had not received insulin at CMCF. On July 26, Johnson again informed the guards of his situation, and he also called the Plaintiff again to tell her that he had not yet been checked or given insulin. On July 27, Johnson became lethargic and nauseated, and he began vomiting. He asked the guards to call the medical unit to report his condition and ask for insulin. Defendant Lisa Day was the nurse on call, and she told the guards to give him water and to call back the next day if he still felt ill. Johnson called the Plaintiff again to update her on his situation. After that call, the Plaintiff called her state Representative, Rita Parks, to ask her to inquire about Johnson's well-being. Someone from Parks's office made that call and was told that Johnson was being housed in a controlled medical facility and receiving appropriate care.

On July 28, Johnson could not stand or walk, and he had to be helped to the guard station by another inmate. The guards brought Johnson to the medical unit, where his blood sugar level was checked. An ambulance was called, and the first responders noted that Johnson was in "some distress." Subsequently, Johnson was transported by ambulance to the Central Mississippi Medical Center's Emergency Room, where his blood glucose levels were found to be significantly elevated. By the time he reached the hospital, he was in full diabetic ketoacidosis and respiratory distress. Unfortunately, the unregulated blood sugar had caused kidney failure, which prevented blood from reaching his organs. Johnson's organs began to fail, and he developed sepsis from the destruction of bowel tissue. Johnson died about two weeks later.

Of the six named Defendants, four are state employees: Christopher Epps, Earnest Lee, James Holman, and Dr. Gloria Perry. It is these four who have moved for summary judgment. Christopher Epps is the Commissioner of MDOC, Earnest Lee is the Superintendent of MSP, James Holman is the Superintendent of CMCF, and Dr. Gloria Perry is MDOC's Chief Medical Officer. The remaining two Defendants are Wexford Health Sources, Inc., a Pennsylvania corporation that contracts with MDOC to provide health care to inmates at MSP and CMCF, and Lisa Day, a nurse employed by Wexford.


The Plaintiff claims that Epps is responsible for providing safe, humane and constitutional detention for the State's inmates. He is also responsible for the utilization of competent medical vendors. According to the Plaintiff, Epps demonstrated deliberate indifference to Johnson's serious medical condition by allowing, through official policy implementation or the lack thereof, denial of insulin to Johnson. She also contends that Epps has a duty to implement an adequate system of medical care and policies. He was, therefore, deliberately indifferent to Johnson's condition by allowing his transfer to a facility without there being proper communication between the facilities of Johnson's medical needs. The Plaintiff claims that Epps has a duty to implement a system for inmates to obtain immediate treatment when they are suffering a life-threatening emergency, and he exhibited deliberate indifference by allowing CMCF's staff to initially deny treatment to Johnson. Finally, she maintains that Epps was responsible for hiring, training, and retaining corrections officers and staff who recognize and respond appropriately to medical emergencies.

With regard to Earnest Lee, Plaintiff claims that, as the Superintendent of MSP, he was responsible for hiring, training and retaining staff who provided adequate information about transferring inmates to the receiving institution. For that reason, she believes that Lee exhibited deliberate indifference by allowing Johnson to be transferred to CMCF without adequate communication of his medical needs. She also contends that he is responsible for his staff's failure to follow-up with CMCF personnel to insure that Johnson's serious medical needs were addressed there.

As Superintendent of CMCF, Holman, according to the Plaintiff, had a duty to implement a system of medical care and policies at that facility that were responsive to medical conditions such as diabetes. He was deliberately indifferent to Johnson's medical care by allowing, through an official policy of lack thereof, Johnson to be denied insulin, denied medical treatment, and to be allowed to fall into diabetic ketoacidosis. She contends that Holman had a duty to implement appropriate medical care policies for delivery of insulin. She also believes that he had a duty to implement policies for the appropriate care of medical emergencies, and he was responsible for hiring, training, and retaining staff that could deal appropriately with medical emergencies.

Plaintiff claims that Dr. Perry was primarily responsible for overseeing MDOC's medical vendor, Wexford. For that reason, she had a duty to assure that the vendor had policies and procedures for the provision of medical care that were appropriate and responsive. The Plaintiff believes that Dr. Perry was deliberately indifferent to Johnson's serious medical needs when she allowed, through action or inaction, Wexford to implement procedures allowing Johnson's transfer without the receiving facility knowing that he needed daily does of insulin.

These Defendants, all of whom are state employees, have moved for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. They argue that the Plaintiff has made only conclusory allegations against Epps, Lee, and Holman, holding that she has not alleged facts reflecting any actual participation in the events that culminated in Johnson's death. They argue, further, that the Plaintiff's claims that these Defendants implemented policies that resulted in Johnson's death are equally insufficient. In support of their claims, these Defendants have offered two Policy statements. The first, Policy No. 25-02-E, is entitled "Healthcare Screening - Intrasystem Transfer." It provides that "transfer offenders will receive a medical, dental and mental health screening performed by health trained or qualified health care personnel upon arrival at the facility." That screening should include inquiry into current health problems, treatment for those health problems, and medication status. The Policy further states, "The Medical Record of any inmate received from the system's reception centers or other state facilities will be reviewed upon the inmate's arrival, " to include his current treatment regimen and medications.

According to the Policy, any current chronic medications should be maintained until reviewed by medical personnel of the receiving facility. It concludes, "Arrangements will be made to continue medically necessary care and any special housing or observations, which may be indicated." Because this Policy was in place when Johnson was transferred, it should have dictated that the administration of insulin would continue at CMCF. If that did not occur, according to these Defendants, it was due to its violation by Wexford's medical staff. Because the policy itself was not deficient, they argue, it could not have resulted in Johnson's death.

Likewise, they argue, Policy No. 25-01-A, entitled "Access to Health Care and Clinical, " provides that inmates will have unimpeded access to health care, through a system in which medical complaints and requests for health are processed on a daily basis. The Policy sets out the procedure for requesting health care and provides that emergency situations "will receive immediate attention." Correctional Officers are to be trained to recognize those situations. According to these Defendants, any failure of CMCF's staff to adhere to these procedures does not establish that the Policy itself was deficient or the cause of Johnson's death. Dr. Perry argues that the Plaintiff's claims against her, based upon her duty to supervise Wexford's performance under its contract with MDOC, suffers from the same deficiencies.

To the extent that the Plaintiff alleges that Epps, Lee, and Holman violated Johnson's constitutional rights by failing to hire, train, or retain staff that would adhere to MDOC's Policies with regard to health care, they argue that her claims cannot be the basis of a claim of deliberate indifference. Such a claim must establish that the inadequacy of the training was obviously likely to result in a constitutional violation, and Plaintiff's conclusory allegations are insufficient. Epps argues that the same analysis should be applied to the claim regarding his selection of Wexford.

Finally, the Defendants argue that their actions were objectively reasonable, in that they could not have reasonably understood that they were engaged in any activity that would violate Johnson's constitutional rights. For that reason, they maintain, they should be immune from suit, "unless all reasonable officials in the defendant's circumstances would have known that the conduct at issue violated clearly established law." Def's Memorandum Brief, p. 14 (citing Thompson v. Upshur Cnty., Texas, 245 F.3d 447, 456 (5th Cir. 2001)). Because the Policies referenced above should have protected Johnson from constitutionally inadequate medical care, the Defendants acted reasonably and are entitled to qualified immunity.

In response, the Plaintiff argues that the Defendants are not entitled to rely on the officially promulgated Policies to claim qualified immunity, as there was an established and persistent pattern of inadequate health care throughout MDOC. She claims that the Defendants were aware of this pattern and did nothing to correct it. Because the pattern was so well established, the Plaintiff contends that it became MDOC's policy, despite the official Policies, which were not enforced. Based on the standard for reviewing her ...

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