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Estate of Sturdivant v. Smith

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

July 17, 2019

ESTATE OF JOSEPH LAVERNE STURDIVANT, et al. PLAINTIFFS
v.
VICTOR SMITH DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          KEITH STARRETT UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         For the reasons above, the Court denies in part and defers ruling in part on Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [6]. The Court denies the motion with respect to Defendant's arguments concerning res judicata and collateral estoppel. The Court defers ruling on Defendant's qualified immunity argument. Plaintiff shall file a Rule 7(a) reply on or before July 30, 2019. Defendant may then file a supplemental brief on or before August 7, 2019, to which Plaintiff may respond on or before August 14, 2019.

         I. Background

         This is the second lawsuit arising from the death of Joey Sturdivant, a pretrial detainee in the Adams County Jail. In March 2016, four other inmates assaulted Sturdivant. Officers then segregated Sturdivant by putting him in “the hold.” One of the inmates who had assaulted him gained access to Sturdivant's cell and attacked him once again. Plaintiffs allege that Defendant, a correctional officer, conspired with inmates to release them from their cells and give them access to Sturdivant's cell. Later that day, officers found Sturdivant dead in his cell. He had hanged himself with a sheet. Plaintiffs allege that Sturdivant had threatened to commit suicide, and that he had been behaving erratically earlier that day.

         In February 2017, Sturdivant's mother filed a lawsuit in this Court against Adams County, Mississippi, Victor Smith, and two other correctional officers. See Complaint, Sturdivant v. Adams County, Miss., No. 5:17-CV-20-KS-MTP (S.D.Miss. Feb. 15, 2017), ECF No. 1. The Court dismissed Plaintiffs' claims against the other two officers. Memorandum Opinion and Order at 3-5, Sturdivant v. Adams County, Miss., No. 5:17-CV-20-KS-MTP (S.D.Miss. Apr. 7, 2017), ECF No. 11. The remaining Defendants - Adams County and Victor Smith - eventually filed motions for summary judgment, which the Court granted. Memorandum Opinion and Order, Sturdivant v. Adams County, Miss. (Sturdivant I), No. 5:17-CV-20-KS-MTP (S.D.Miss. Dec. 18, 2018), ECF No. 71.

         First, the Court held that Plaintiffs did not have standing to assert Section 1983 claims arising from Victor Smith's alleged use of excessive force and failure to protect Sturdivant from other inmates. Id. at 4-7. The Court noted that standing under Section 1983 is determined by reference to the venue state's wrongful death or survival statutes. Id. at 4 (citing Pluet v. Frazier, 355 F.3d 381, 383 (5th Cir. 2004)). Under Mississippi law, only an estate's administrator can bring an action for survival claims. Johnson v. Med. Express Ambulance Serv., Inc., 565 F.Supp.2d 699, 703 (S.D.Miss. 2008); Miss. Code Ann. § 91-7-233. However, wrongful death beneficiaries may “recover survival-type damages” in a wrongful death action for personal injuries sustained by the decedent as long as “the same wrongful conduct caused both [his] personal injury and death . . . .” Johnson, 565 F.Supp.2d at 703. If the same conduct that allegedly caused the injury to the decedent did not cause his death, the wrongful death beneficiaries can not recover on the survival claim under the wrongful death statute. In re Estate of England, 846 So.2d 1060, 1068 (Miss. Ct. App. 2003).

         Plaintiffs failed to respond to Defendants' request for an admission that the “sole proximate cause of Joseph Laverne Sturdivant's death was suicide.” See Exhibit 4, Sturdivant v. Adams County, Miss., No. 5:17-CV-20-KS-MTP (S.D.Miss. Sept. 17, 2018), ECF No. 50-4. Therefore, in Plaintiffs' previous case, it was conclusively established that the “sole proximate cause” of Sturdivant's death was suicide. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 36(b). Because the misconduct alleged by Plaintiffs - Smith's use of excessive force and failure to protect Sturdivant from other inmates - did not cause Sturdivant's death, his wrongful death beneficiaries could not recover on the survival claims. Sturdivant I, at 5.

         Moreover, standing is assessed by reference to the time when a suit was filed, Three Expo Events, LLC v. City of Dallas, 907 F.3d 333, 345 (5th Cir. 2018), and Plaintiffs did not open Sturdivant's estate until they received Defendants' Motions for Summary Judgment, eighteen months after the suit was filed. Therefore, the Court held that Plaintiffs did not have standing to pursue Sturdivant's § 1983 claims for injuries caused by Smith's alleged use of excessive force and/or failure to protect him from other inmates. The Court dismissed those claims without prejudice.

         Smith also argued that Plaintiffs did not plead any claim that he was deliberately indifferent to the risk of Sturdivant committing suicide. The Court agreed, noting that Plaintiffs did not mention suicide in the Complaint. Plaintiffs had also not requested leave to amend the complaint. Therefore, the Court concluded that there were no claims before the court related to Smith's alleged deliberate indifference to the risk that Sturdivant would commit suicide.

         The Court entered a final judgment. Plaintiffs later filed a motion for relief from the judgment as to their purported claim that Smith was deliberately indifferent to the risk that Sturdivant would prevent suicide, but the Court denied the motion. Sturdivant v. Adams County, Miss., No. 5:17-CV-20-KS-MTP, 2019 WL 722598 (S.D.Miss. Feb. 20, 2019).

         Less than a month later, Plaintiffs filed this lawsuit. Victor Smith, in his individual capacity, is the only Defendant. Plaintiffs allege that Smith violated Sturdivant's rights by failing to provide necessary medical care, failing to prevent his suicide, and failing to protect him from other inmates. Smith filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [6]. He argues that Plaintiffs' claims are barred by the doctrines of collateral estoppel and res judicata. He also argues that he is entitled to qualified immunity from liability.

         II. Standard of Review

         A “motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) is subject to the same standard as a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6).” Doe v. MySpace, Inc., 528 F.3d 413, 418 (5th Cir. 2008). To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. LLC v. La. State, 624 F.3d 201, 210 (5th Cir. 2010) (punctuation omitted). “To be plausible, the complaint's factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Id. (punctuation omitted). The Court must “accept all well-pleaded facts as true and construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Id. But the Court will not accept as true “conclusory allegations, unwarranted factual inferences, or legal conclusions.” Id. Likewise, “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” PSKS, Inc. v. Leegin Creative Leather Prods., Inc., 615 F.3d 412, 417 (5th Cir. 2010) (punctuation omitted). “While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1950, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009).

         III. ...


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