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Estate of Thornton v. Rankin County

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

April 14, 2015



DANIEL P. JORDAN, III, District Judge.

This civil-rights case is before the Court on Defendant Rankin County, Mississippi's Motion for Summary Judgment [40]. The parties have fully briefed the issues, and because Plaintiffs have not established a basis for municipal liability against the County, Defendant's motion should be granted.

I. Background

In September 2010, Ronny O. Thornton was incarcerated at the Rankin County Detention Facility in Brandon, Mississippi. Tragically, he died the following month on October 6, 2010. His estate now brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming Rankin County violated Thornton's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by applying excessive force, ignoring his medical needs, and violating his due-process rights. Rankin County also perceived state-law claims in the Complaint, but Plaintiffs have confirmed that no such claims were pleaded. The matter is now before the Court on Defendant's fully briefed motion for summary judgment. The Court has personal and subject-matter jurisdiction and is prepared to rule.

II. Standards

Summary judgment is warranted under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure when evidence reveals no genuine dispute regarding any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The rule "mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

The party moving for summary judgment "bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Id. at 323. The nonmoving party must then "go beyond the pleadings" and "designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Id. at 324. In reviewing the evidence, factual controversies are to be resolved in favor of the nonmovant, "but only when... both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts." Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc) (per curiam). When such contradictory facts exist, the court may "not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000). Conclusory allegations, speculation, unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic arguments have never constituted an adequate substitute for specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial. TIG Ins. Co. v. Sedgwick James of Wash., 276 F.3d 754, 759 (5th Cir. 2002); Little, 37 F.3d at 1075; SEC v. Recile, 10 F.3d 1093, 1097 (5th Cir. 1993) (per curiam).[1]

III. Analysis

Plaintiffs generally allege that the County deprived Thornton of adequate medical attention, subjected him to excessive force, and violated his due-process rights, all in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. They therefore pursue their claims against Rankin County under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which creates a cause of action against any person who violates another's constitutional rights while acting under color of state law.

As a threshold observation, Plaintiffs' claims find a better home under the Fourteenth Amendment than the Fourth, because Thornton was a pretrial detainee when the conduct allegedly occurred. Brothers. v. Klevenhagen, 28 F.3d 452, 455-56 (5th Cir. 1994) ("A pretrial detainee receives the protection of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment."). Therefore, the Fourth Amendment claims are dismissed. And as for the due-process claim, Plaintiffs brief the issue as derivative of the medical-care and excessive-force claims. Accordingly, the Court will focus on those claims under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Municipal liability under § 1983 may not rest on respondeat superior and instead must be premised upon "some official action or imprimatur.'" Valle v. City of Hous., 613 F.3d 536, 541 (5th Cir. 2010) (quoting Piotrowski v. City of Houston, 237 F.3d 567, 578 (5th Cir. 2001)). Thus "municipal liability under section 1983 requires proof of three elements: a policymaker; an official policy; and a violation of constitutional rights whose moving force' is the policy or Jackson v. Cal-W. Packaging Corp., 602 F.3d 374, 379-80 (5th Cir. 2010); see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(3). Nevertheless, because Plaintiffs' record evidence is only twelve pages long, the Court exercised its discretion and reviewed the material in its entirety. custom." Piotrowski, 237 F.3d at 578 (citing Monell v. Dep't. of Soc. Servs. of N.Y., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978)).[2]

A. The Claims

With respect to the medical-care claim, Plaintiffs do not dispute that the County contracted with a third party to provide professional medical care at the detention center or that a healthcare professional saw Thornton on a near daily basis throughout his incarceration. Instead, Plaintiffs contend that the care Thornton received was deficient in two main ways. First, they argue that Thornton had preexisting conditions requiring prescription medication, yet the County failed to properly and timely screen Thornton or provide his normal medication. Second, they state that on the night preceding his death, Thornton was acting irregularly and exhibiting symptoms that should have prompted immediate medical attention. There is record evidence supporting these assertions on a factual basis. Whether they amount to a constitutional violation is a closer issue that the Court need not address because, as discussed later, the record lacks any evidence establishing the County's liability for these events.

The excessive-force claim is different. Thornton's mother testified that she saw him in the days before his death and noticed no bruises or lacerations, yet after his death, bruising and lacerations were noted on his face. Thornton Dep. [55-1] at 2-3. Plaintiffs also produced an affidavit from an inmate who states that guards cussed at Thornton and at one point removed him from his cell, though this witness observed no exertion of force against Thornton and no evidence of any injuries. McLaurin Aff. [55-2] at 1-2. The only other evidence Plaintiffs offer is the report from their designated expert, Karen H. Hughes, M.D., a certified anatomic and clinical pathologist. But in her report, Hughes attributes some of Thornton's injuries to an "apparent" ...

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