Eleventh Circuit Dismisses Claims in Prisoner Suicide Case

In Jackson v. West, 787 F.3d 1345 (11th Cir. 2015), the Eleventh Circuit held that the plaintiff failed to establish genuine disputes of fact as to whether seven corrections officers at the Marion County Jail had subjective knowledge of the decedent’s suicide risk. The decedent, a twenty-two year old in custody for approximately four months on charges of robbery and home invasion, committed suicide in his cell. The decedent’s mother filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 complaint against the county sheriff in his official capacity and against ten corrections officers in their individual capacities, alleging violations of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause for failing to prevent the decedent’s suicide. The district court found qualified immunity barred suit against three officers, but not against the remaining seven, who then appealed to the Eleventh Circuit. The claim against the sheriff was stayed by the district court pending the outcome of the seven officers’ appeal. The Eleventh Circuit reversed the lower court’s ruling and granted the seven officers’ motions for summary judgment.

According to Cook ex rel. Estate of Tessier v. Sheriff, 402 F.3d 1092 (11th Cir. 2005), pretrial detainees, like the decedent, have a Due Process right under the Fourteenth Amendment to receive medical treatment for illnesses and injuries, including psychiatric and mental health services, and a right to be protected from self-inflicted injuries, including suicide. However, to prevail under a Section 1983 complaint for violation of these rights, a plaintiff must prove each officer individually displayed deliberate indifference to the prisoner’s suicidal tendencies. Edwards v. Gilbert, 867 F.2d 1271, 1274-75 (11th Cir. 1989).

The court evaluated each officer’s interactions with the decedent in turn, and found none had subjective knowledge of a strong risk he would attempt suicide and that none were deliberately indifferent for qualified immunity purposes.

Two officers observed the decedent attempting to incite violence against other officers, and one officer reported the decedent had anti-social, aggressive behavioral problems that needed to be addressed by the medical department. The latter officer later observed another inmate punching the decedent. The officer testified he was never informed by anyone about a risk of the decedent self-harming. Because the two incidents did not involve a mention of suicide, the Eleventh Circuit found no genuine issue of fact regarding whether either officer had subjective knowledge of a strong suicide risk.

The third officer served as watch commander during one of two occasions when the decedent made explicit suicide threats. After the threat was made, the decedent was moved to the suicide prevention unit, where he was later released when Prison Health Services, decided the decedent was no longer a suicide risk. Plaintiff failed to offer any legal precedent to suggest a watch commander should be liable for medical personnel’s independent decision days later to release an inmate from the suicide prevention section, and the court granted the third officer’s summary judgment motion.

The court found plaintiff offered no evidence the fourth and fifth officers had any specific knowledge of the decedent’s suicide risk where the officers were notified the decedent was involved in a fight with another inmate and where the officers were two of the jail employees that responded to the suicide. The sixth officer had no recorded contact with the decedent. The seventh officer was the watch commander responsible for overseeing the entire jail when he was on duty, which included many days when the decedent was housed at the jail, including when he threatened officers, flooded his cell with water, and ignored orders to submit to handcuffing from five officers. The court found none of these incidents directly suggested a strong risk of suicide.

The court declined to address the plaintiff’s separate claim that the officers failed to respond in a timely manner to the decedent’s suicide, which was based on a fellow inmate’s sworn statement that it took over ten minutes for officers to arrive at the cell, because it was not adequately addressed in the complaint.

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