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Handy v. Madison County

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

July 25, 2017




         This cause is before the Court on two motions that have been filed in this wrongful death action. Having considered the pleadings, attachments thereto, as well as supporting and opposing authorities the Court finds:

         Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment-Related Discovery is not well taken and should be denied.

         Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment on the grounds of qualified immunity is well taken and should be granted.

         I. Factual Background and Procedural History

         On September 5, 2015, Willie Handy, Jr., died while detained at the Madison County Detention Center (“MCDC”) following an asthma attack. Thereafter, Latasha Handy (“Handy”), on behalf of herself and Willie Handy's heirs and wrongful death beneficiaries, filed a lawsuit against Madison County, Mississippi, Madison County Sheriff Randy Tucker, and MCDC Officers Master Sargent Jamal Watkins (“Watkins”), Jeremiah Thornton (“Thornton”), John Wingard (“Wingard”), and Felicia Adams (“Adams”). In her Complaint, Handy alleges, inter alia, that “Defendants unlawfully battered, applied mace, and choked Willie Handy., Jr., causing his asthma to flare intensely resulting in his death.” Second Am. Compl. [Docket No. 25], ¶ 9. Handy also alleges that the defendants failed to (1) provide necessary medical attention to Willie Handy, (2) adequately train personnel to promptly identify individuals who are having asthma attacks, and (3) promptly respond to Willie Handy's requests for medical care. Based on these allegations, Handy seeks actual and punitive damages on claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law claims sounding in negligence.[1]

         During the course of litigation, Officers Watkins, Thornton, and Wingard, filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on any claims alleged against them in their individual capacities on the grounds they are immune from such claims. The pleadings on the Motion for Summary Judgment provide the following facts with respect to the events that preceded Willie Handy's death.

         Willie Handy had been detained at the MCDC numerous times between May of 1995, and September of 2015. See Mot. for Sum. J. [Docket No. 35], Ex. A (McNeal Aff.), ¶ 1. Willie Handy's last period of detention began on July 19, 2015, and ended with his death on September 5, 2015. Id. at ¶ 3. There is no evidence before the Court that Willie Handy was choked or maced at any time during his final period of detention. Id. at ¶¶ 3, 5.[2] In other words, Handy has not provided any evidence to either contradict the averments made by Major McNeal with respect to whether Willie Handy was ever choked or maced during his last period of detention at the MCDC, or to show that Willie Handy had been choked and/or maced during that time period.

         According to Officer Thornton, Willie Handy had been housed in area “C4” while detained at the MCDC so he would be closer to the medical unit. Id., Ex. C (Thornton Aff.), ¶ 2. Willie Handy had a long history of asthma, and received respiratory treatments for that disease. See id. Ex. B (Palmer Aff.), ex. 1 at 35 (indicating that Willie Handy had a documented medical history of asthma from at least December of 2011). On September 5, 2015, Officer Watkins spoke with Willie Handy at approximately 4:00 p.m., at which point Willie Handy did not appear in any distress. Id., Ex. E (Watkins Aff.), ¶¶ 2, 3. Sometime thereafter, Willie Handy told Thornton he wanted to go to the medical unit to have a breathing treatment because his chest felt “tight”. Id., Ex. C (Thornton Aff.), ¶ 3. Willie Handy did not appear to be in any distress at that time. Id. at ¶ 4. Thornton contacted the medical unit, and was advised that Willie Handy could be brought down for a breathing treatment once the female detainees had left the unit. Id. at ¶ 5. Officer Wingard later escorted Willie Handy to the medical unit at approximately 6:15 p.m. Id., Ex. D (Wingard Aff.), ¶ 3. At that time, Willie Handy did not appear to be experiencing any breathing problems, and was not showing any signs of distress. Id. See also id., Ex. C (Thornton Aff.), ¶ 7 (Thornton averring he witnessed Willie Handy being escorted to the medical unit, and that Willie Handy was not in any distress at that time).

         Willie Handy presented at the medical unit at approximately 6:17 p.m., complaining of shortness of breath and wheezing, and requesting a new inhaler and breathing treatment. Id., Ex. B (Palmer Aff.), ¶¶ 4, 5. Willie Handy was assessed by Sheoashie Palmer, R.N. (“Palmer”), who measured his heart rate to be 95 beats per minute, his respiratory rate to be 20 breaths per minute, and his oxygen saturation level to be 95%. Id. at ¶ 8. Although Willie Handy had some wheezing, he indicated he was “fine” and could wait for his breathing treatment. During the time the breathing treatment was later being administered, Willie Handy did not appear to be in any distress. Id. at Ex. C (Thornton Aff.), at ¶ 9 (Thornton averring that at the time Willie Handy was being given the breathing treatment, he was watching the people passing by the medical unit, talking to the nurse, and was not displaying any signs of distress). There were no changes in Willie Handy's vital signs after the breathing treatment was given, and he was kept near the medical unit for observation. Id., Ex. B (Palmer Aff.), ¶¶ 8, 9.

         While under observation, Willie Handy developed labored breathing at which point he was brought back to the medical unit. Id. at ¶ 10. At that point, while there were no changes in his heart or respiratory rate, Willie Handy's oxygen saturation level was measured at 82%. Id. at ¶ 11. Palmer immediately began giving Willie Handy a second breathing treatment. Id. at ¶ 12. During this treatment, Willie Handy became diaphoretic and restless and was given a Decadron (steroid) injection. Id. at ¶ 13. Thereafter, Willie Handy became unresponsive, and Palmer immediately began to perform CPR and requested that an ambulance be called. Id. at ¶ 15.

         The next time Watkins, Thornton, and/or Wingard saw Willie Handy was after the three were summoned to the medical unit. Upon their arrival, Willie Handy was being administered CPR by the medical staff. Id., Ex. E (Watkins Aff.), ¶¶ 6, 7; Id., Ex. D (Wingard Aff.), ¶¶ 4, 5; Id., Ex. C (Thornton Aff.), ¶ 10. Thornton accompanied Willie Handy both in the ambulance where emergency medical technicians continued to perform CPR, and in the emergency room where Willie Handy was declared dead. Id., Ex. C (Thornton Aff.), ¶¶ 12, 13. Watkins, Thornton, and Wingard each aver that they never choked or maced Willie Handy, and never witnessed such actions being taken against Willie Handy by any other officer. Id., Ex. E at (Watkins Aff.), ¶ 10; Id., Ex. D (Wingard Aff.), ¶6; Id., Ex. C (Thornton), ¶¶ 14, 15. The cause of Willie Handy's death was identified as “Acute Asthma Exacerbation (Status Astematicus)”. See Resp. [Docket No. 40], Ex. D. The Court now considers the motions before it.

         II. Discussion

         A. Motion for Summary Judgment-Related Discovery

         In addition to responding to the Motion for Summary Judgment, Handy has requested leave to conduct summary judgment-related discovery. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit permits immunity-related discovery in cases in which “the defendant's immunity claim turns at least partially on a factual question”, “the district court is unable to rule on the immunity defense without further clarification of the facts”, and the discovery requested is “narrowly tailored to uncover only those facts needed to rule on the immunity claim [and] are neither avoidable nor overly broad.” Lion Boulos v. Wilson, 834 F.2d 504, 507-08 (5th Cir. 1987). Here, Handy seeks leave to (1) conduct discovery to “fully ascertain each and every officer, jailer, medical provider, and other possible witnesses present at MCDC” at the time of Willie Handy's death; (2) depose multiple individuals including the responding paramedics, the coroner, and the medical examiner who performed Willie Handy's autopsy; and (3) subpoena unedited surveillance video and investigatory files from the Madison County District Attorney as well as the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation. Mot. for Discovery [Docket No. 39], Ex. A, ¶¶ 2, 6.[3] The Court finds these requests should be denied because they are clearly overly broad in that they seek information that has not been shown to have any bearing on the claim of immunity raised on summary judgment. Handy also seeks discovery to determine whether the actions of any of the summary judgment movants were motivated by policy or practice, and/or to “test the strength and credibility” of their affidavits. Id. at ¶¶ 3-4. The Court finds these requests should likewise be denied because the defense of qualified immunity is predicated on the individual conduct of the state actor, and the Court does not make credibility determinations on summary judgment.

         In sum, although Handy argues that she is in need of additional discovery in order to respond to the immunity defenses raised on summary judgment, such general statement of need is insufficient to warrant Rule 56(d) discovery. See Krim v. BancTexasGroup, Inc., 989 F.2d 1435, 1442 (5th Cir. 1993) (explaining that “vague assertions that additional discovery will produce needed, but unspecific facts” does not warrant discovery under Rule 56(d)). Accordingly, the Court will deny Handy's Motion for Discovery.

         B. Motion for ...

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