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Chipley v. Yazoo County

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

April 20, 2018

MARIE RHODES CHIPLEY, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE DECEDENT, MICHAEL WILLIAM RHODES, FOR AND ON BEHALF OF ALL WRONGFUL DEATH BENEFICIARIES AND AS ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF MICHAEL WILLIAM RHODES, DECEASED PLAINTIFF
v.
YAZOO COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI; SHERIFF JACOB SHERIFF, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY; SERGEANT SHARKEY BROWLOW, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY; CAPTAIN GARY EDWARDS, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY; SANDRA BANKS, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY; WARDEN MARY RUSHING, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          TOM S. LEE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         On December 24, 2014, less than twelve hours after being arrested and incarcerated in the Yazoo County Regional Correctional Facility, Michael Rhodes committed suicide. His daughter, Marie Rhodes Chipley, for herself and on behalf of Rhodes' estate and wrongful death beneficiaries, filed the present lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging violations of Rhodes' constitutional rights by Yazoo County; Yazoo County Regional Correctional Facility (YCFCF); the arresting officer, Simon Stubblefield; Yazoo County Sheriff Jacob Sheriff; YCRCF Warden Mary Rushing[1]; YCRCF Captain Gary Edwards; and various jail employees, including Sergeant Sharkey Brownlow, Sandra Banks and Sederick Clark. She also included a state law cause of action for negligence. The case is presently before the court on separate motions for summary judgment by defendant Sharkey Brownlow, in his individual capacity, [2] and by defendants Sheriff, Rushing, Edwards and Banks, in their individual capacities.[3] Plaintiff has responded in opposition to the motions. The court, having considered the memoranda of authorities, together with attachments, submitted by the parties, concludes that Brownlow's motion should be denied and the motion of Sheriff, Rushing, Edwards and Banks should be granted.

         Background Facts

         The following undisputed facts are drawn from the record evidence.[4] On December 23, 2014, the Yazoo County Sheriff's Office received a report that plaintiff's decedent, Michael Rhodes, had run off the road and damaged some property and then left the scene. Deputies Simon Stubblefield and Dave Collins, responding to this call, separately drove to Rhodes' residence. When they arrived, they found Rhodes sitting in his vehicle in the woods near his home; the vehicle was stuck in the mud. Family members at the scene reported that Rhodes, who had been drinking, was in the vehicle with a gun to his head, threatening to harm himself. The family asked the officers to back off, since Rhodes was reportedly upset by their presence. The officers backed away for about twenty minutes, and after the family was able to get the gun away from Rhodes, they returned at the family's request and took Rhodes into custody.[5] Stubblefield then transported him to the Yazoo County Regional Correctional Facility.

         Because it was apparent to Stubblefield that Rhodes was intoxicated and unable to walk, he radioed ahead to the jail to request assistance with Rhodes. When they arrived at the jail, they were met by Sergeant Sharkey Brownlow, who was working as a floor supervisor at the jail. Brownlow helped get Rhodes out of the car and into the jail. Once inside the jail, Brownlow and Stubblefield took Rhodes into the booking room. Brownlow told the booking officer, Sandra Banks, to skip the standard booking procedure, ostensibly because Rhodes was too intoxicated to answer questions.[6] Stubblefield helped Brownlow get Rhodes changed into inmate clothing and together, they helped Rhodes walk to a segregation/isolation cell. Stubblefield then departed the jail. Brownlow checked on Rhodes a couple or a few times during the night and in the early morning hours (though the evidence as to how often is contradictory). When Brownlow checked on Rhodes around 5:30 a.m. on December 24, he discovered that Rhodes had committed suicide; he had used the sheet to make a noose and hanged himself from the top bunk. Strips of sheet were found hanging from the light fixture and a chair in the cell, suggesting failed attempts at suicide.

         At the time of Mr. Rhodes' suicide, YCRCF had in place a “Suicide Plan for County Offenders”, which provided, among other requirements, that:

1. All threats ... of intentional self-injury shall be taken seriously and REPORTED IMMEDIATELY TO MEDICAL STAFF for directions and appropriate medical treatment and mental health evaluation. ...
2. An officer must stay with the offender at all times.
3. The offender is to be placed in the medical isolation cell (C1006) for continual observation by an officer.
4. Offender should be dressed out in suicide watch garments, and all items must be removed from the cell that may be used to injure him/her self (pants, shirts, linens, towels, razors, strings of any kind, etc).
5. Once the offender is dressed in suicide garments and all items have been removed from the offender, a correctional officer will be posted outside the medical isolation cell to physically observe the offender.
6. Offender must be under CONTINUOUS observation AT ALL TIMES.

         (Emphasis in original). There was also a written policy requiring that “[i]nmates who have ... exhibited suicidal tendencies will be housed in a more secure location than the general population. Correctional Staff will observe these inmates no less frequently than fifteen (15) minute intervals.” And, there were segregation policies which required that inmates in segregation “be personally observed by a correctional staff member at least every FORTY (40) minutes on an irregular schedule. ... Suicidal inmates shall be under continuous observation....” It is undisputed that none of these policies was followed in the case of Michael Rhodes.

         All the individual defendants have moved for summary judgment as to plaintiff's § 1983 claims against them in their individual capacities on the basis of qualified immunity. They also contend they are entitled to immunity under the Mississippi Tort Claims Act (MTCA), Miss. Code Ann. § 11-46-1, et seq. as to plaintiff's state law claim for negligence.

         Section 1983 and Qualified Immunity

         Section 1983 prohibits the deprivation of constitutional rights under color of state law. See 42 U.S.C. § 1983. To establish personal liability in a § 1983 action, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant official, acting under color of state law, caused the deprivation of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States. Anderson v. Valdez, 845 F.3d 580, 599 (5th Cir. 2016). The doctrine of qualified immunity shields officials from civil liability so long as their conduct “‘does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231, 129 S.Ct. 808, 172 L.Ed.2d 565 (2009) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982)). “Qualified immunity gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments about open legal questions. When properly applied, it protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 743, 131 S.Ct. 2074, 2085, 179 L.Ed.2d 1149 (2011) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         When an official raises qualified immunity, the plaintiff has the burden to overcome the defense by showing that “(1) the defendant violated the plaintiff's constitutional rights and (2) the defendant's actions were objectively unreasonable in light of clearly established law at the time of the violation.” Porter v. Epps, 659 F.3d 440, 445 (5th Cir. 2011). “A government official's conduct violates clearly established law when, at the time of the challenged conduct, ‘[t]he contours of [a] right [are] sufficiently clear' that every ‘reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.'” al-Kidd, 563 U.S. at 741, 131 S.Ct. 2074 (quoting Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 97 L.Ed.2d 523 (1987)). The Supreme Court has cautioned against defining “‘clearly established law ... at a high level of generality, ' since doing so avoids the crucial question whether the official acted reasonably in the particular circumstances that he or she faced.” Plumhoff v. Rickard, ___ U.S. ___, 134 S.Ct. 2012, 2023, 188 L.Ed.2d 1056 (2014) (quoting al-Kidd, 563 U.S. at 742, 131 S.Ct. 2074). To find that the law was clearly established, “[the court] must be able to point to controlling authority-or a robust consensus of persuasive authority-that defines the contours of the right in question with a high degree of particularity.” Morgan v. Swanson, 659 F.3d 359, 371-72 (5th Cir. 2011) (en banc) (brackets and internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting al-Kidd, 563 U.S. at 741, 131 S.Ct. 2074). That does not mean that there must be a case “directly on point, but existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.” Al-Kidd, 563 U.S. at 741, 131 S.Ct. 2074.[7]

         Summary Judgment Standard

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), summary judgment is required when “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Typically on a summary judgment motion, the moving party bears the initial burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2552, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). If the moving party demonstrates an absence of evidence supporting the nonmoving party's case, then the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to come forward with specific facts showing that a genuine issue for trial does exist. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 1356, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). However, a government official's good faith assertion of a qualified immunity defense alters the usual summary judgment burden of proof. Michalik v. Hermann, 422 F.3d 252, 262 (5th Cir. 2005). Once the official asserts qualified immunity, the plaintiff has the burden to show there is a genuine and material dispute as to whether qualified immunity applies. Castorena v. Zamora, 684 Fed.Appx. 360, 363 (5th Cir. 2017) (citations omitted). See also Thompson v. Upshur Cty., TX, 245 F.3d 447, 456 (5th Cir. 2001) (“We do not require that an official demonstrate that he did not violate clearly established federal rights; our precedent places that burden upon plaintiffs.”) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         A genuine issue exists “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). Conversely, “[n]o genuine dispute of fact exists if the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party.” EEOC v. Simbaki, Ltd., 767 F.3d 475, 481 (5th Cir. 2014). When evaluating whether a genuine dispute as to any material fact exists, the court considers “all of the evidence in the record but refrain[s] from making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence.” Delta & Pine Land Co. v. Nationwide Agribusiness Ins. Co., 530 F.3d 395, 398-99 (5th Cir. 2008). In so doing, the court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, even on a summary judgment motion based on qualified immunity. See Brown v. Callahan, 623 F.3d 249, 253 (5th Cir. 2010) (“The plaintiff bears the burden of negating qualified immunity, but all inferences are drawn in his favor.”).

         Plaintiff's Constitutional Rights ...


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