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Brown v. St Landry Parish Sheriff's Dept.

United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Lafayette Division

March 21, 2018





         Currently pending is a motion for summary judgment filed by defendants Sheriff Bobby Guidroz and Assistant Warden Ovide Stelly. [Rec. Doc. 14]. The motion is opposed. Considering the evidence, the law, and the arguments of the parties, and for the reasons fully explained below, the defendants' motion for summary judgment is granted in part and denied in part.


         Roland Brown (“Brown”) died while he was an inmate at the St. Landry Parish Jail (“SLPJ”) allegedly because he was denied adequate medical care.[1] As a result, Brown's wife and children filed a complaint based on 28 U.S.C. §1983 against the St. Landry Parish Sheriff's Department (“SLPSD”), Sheriff Bobby Guidroz, in his individual and official capacity, and Assistant Warden Ovide Stelly (“Stelly”), in his individual and official capacity.[2] The plaintiffs have also brought various claims under state law. Although the complaint contains a number of citations to various provisions of the Constitution, the Court construes the complaint to allege violations of the decedent's rights under the Eighth and/or Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.[3] The state law claims are based on La.C.C. Art. 2315 and the Louisiana Constitution.

         The defendants contend Brown voluntarily discontinued his blood pressure medication in writing, and to the extent his death was caused by complications of hypertension, it was not caused by anything the defendants did or did not do. The plaintiffs contend that the defendants failed to provide Brown with his blood pressure medicine without his permission because the signatures on the forms which purport to voluntarily discontinue his blood pressure medication are not Brown's signature.

         The defendants further contend that the uncontroverted evidence demonstrates that the medical staff at the SLPJ who allegedly discontinued Brown's medication and cleared him to return to his bunk where he subsequently died, were not employees of the Sheriff. Further, neither the assistant warden or any other employees of the Sheriff's department were responsible for the dispensing/administering of medication, and the medical treatment, or lack thereof, rendered to Brown when he was brought to the medical staff for attention and/or medication. Finally, when the decedent did have medical complaints, he was promptly brought to the medical staff by the assistant warden. Therefore, the defendants cannot be liable for their actions or alleged inactions.

         The plaintiffs allege, but provide no evidence, that Stelly was made aware of Brown's medical problems by his cellmate, Phil Bryant, but Stelly ignored Bryant's pleas for help and failed to render aid and assistance. Although they have provided evidence that SLPSD deputies actually gave medications to inmates, there is no evidence that non-medical staff were involved in determining what medications were given and in what amounts. The plaintiffs do not address the contention that the medical staff were not employees of the Sheriff.


         A. The Standard for a Motion for Summary Judgment

         Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is appropriate when there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A fact is material if proof of its existence or nonexistence might affect the outcome of the lawsuit under the applicable governing law.[4] A genuine issue of material fact exists if a reasonable jury could render a verdict for the nonmoving party.[5]

         The party seeking summary judgment has the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those parts of the record that demonstrate the absence of genuine issues of material fact.[6] If the moving party carries its initial burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to demonstrate the existence of a genuine issue of a material fact.[7] All facts and inferences are construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.[8]

         If the dispositive issue is one on which the nonmoving party will bear the burden of proof at trial, the moving party may satisfy its burden by pointing out that there is insufficient proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim.[9] The motion should be granted if the nonmoving party cannot produce evidence to support an essential element of its claim.[10]

         When both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts, a court is bound to draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party.[11] The court cannot make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence, and the nonmovant cannot meet his burden with unsubstantiated assertions, conclusory allegations, or a scintilla of evidence.[12] “When all of the summary judgment evidence presented by both parties could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial and summary judgment is proper.”[13]

         Additionally, when a defendant asserts qualified immunity at the summary judgment stage, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to raise facts that dispute the defendant's assertion of qualified immunity.[14] However, the court must still view all facts and make all reasonable inferences in light most favorable to the plaintiff.[15] If the plaintiff fails, the motion for summary judgment should be granted.

         B. The Standard for Evaluating a Section 1983 Claim

          Section 1983 provides a cause of action against anyone who “under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State” violates another person's Constitutional rights. Section 1983 is not itself a source of substantive rights; it merely provides a method for vindicating federal rights conferred elsewhere.[16] To state a section 1983 claim, a plaintiff must: (1) allege a violation of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States, and (2) demonstrate that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law.[17] In this case, the defendants do not contest whether Sheriff Guidroz and Stelly acted under color of law at any relevant time, but they do challenge as part of their qualified immunity defense whether the defendants' alleged actions or omissions are Constitutional violations.

         The claims against Sheriff Guidroz and Stelly are brought both in their individual and official capacity. A suit against a government official in his official capacity is a suit against the government entity of which he is an agent.[18]Municipalities are not vicariously liable for violations committed by their employees, but they are liable when their official policies cause their employees to violate another person's constitutional rights.[19] Therefore, a claim of municipal liability under § 1983 requires proof of three elements: a policymaker, an official policy, and a violation of constitutional rights whose moving force is the policy or custom.[20] The proper analysis of such claims requires an inquiry into two separate issues: “(1) whether plaintiff's harm was caused by a constitutional violation, and (2) if so, whether the municipality is responsible for that violation.”[21]

         A municipality's official policies include any persistent, widespread practice of officials or employees that is not authorized by officially adopted and promulgated policy, but is so common and well settled as to constitute a custom that fairly represents municipal policy.[22]

         In order to assert a valid claim against an official in his individual capacity, a §1983 claimant must establish that the defendant was either personally involved in a constitutional deprivation or that his wrongful actions were causally connected to the constitutional deprivation.[23] “Under section 1983, supervisory officials are not liable for the actions of subordinates on any theory of vicarious liability.”[24] “A supervisory official may be held liable . . . only if (1) he affirmatively participates in the acts that cause the constitutional deprivation, or (2) he implements unconstitutional policies that causally result in the constitutional injury.”[25]

         To establish supervisor liability for constitutional violations committed by subordinate employees, the plaintiffs must show that the supervisor acted or failed to act with deliberate indifference to the violation of others' constitutional rights committed by their subordinates.[26] Deliberate indifference requires “proof that a municipal actor disregarded a known or obvious consequence of his action.”[27]

         The plaintiffs' claims also include allegations of the defendants' failure to properly train and supervise, as well as maintain policies to provide required medication and treatment for medical conditions. A municipality may incur §1983 liability for its employees' acts when a municipal policy of hiring or training causes those acts.[28] When such a claim is asserted, the plaintiff must show (1) that the training or hiring procedures of the municipality's policymaker were inadequate; (2) that the municipality's policymaker was deliberately indifferent in adopting the hiring or training policy; and (3) that the inadequate hiring or training policy directly caused the plaintiff's injury.[29]

         A supervisor may be liable for failure to supervise or train if: (1) the supervisor failed to supervise or train the subordinate officer; (2) a causal connection exists between the failure to supervise or train and the violation of the plaintiff's rights; and (3) the failure to supervise or train amounted to deliberate indifference to the plaintiff's constitutional rights.[30]

         C. The Standard for Evaluating Qualified Immunity

         Qualified immunity, an affirmative defense to a suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, protects government officials in their individual capacity, while performing discretionary functions, not only from suit, but from “liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”[31] Qualified immunity protects “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”[32]

         Although qualified immunity is “nominally an affirmative defense, the plaintiff has the burden to negate the defense once properly raised.”[33] A defendant's assertion of qualified immunity is analyzed under a two-prong test.[34] The first prong asks whether the plaintiff has shown sufficient facts to “make out a violation of a constitutional right.”[35] The second prong requires the court to determine “whether the right at issue was ‘clearly established' at the time of defendant's alleged misconduct.”[36]

         The Supreme Court articulated the analysis as follows:

In resolving questions of qualified immunity at summary judgment, courts engage in a two-pronged inquiry. The first asks whether the facts, [t]aken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, . . . show the officer's conduct violated a [federal] right[.]
The second prong of the qualified-immunity analysis asks whether the right in question was “clearly established” at the time of the violation. Governmental actors are shielded from liability for civil damages if their actions did not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. [T]he salient question is whether the state of the law at the time of an incident provided “fair warning” to the defendants that their alleged [conduct] was unconstitutional.
Courts have discretion to decide the order in which to engage these two prongs. But under either prong, courts may not resolve genuine disputes of fact in favor of the party seeking summary judgment. This is not a rule specific to qualified immunity; it is simply an application of the more general rule that a “judge's function” at summary judgment is not to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Summary judgment is appropriate only if the movant shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In making that determination, a court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the opposing party.[37]

         D. Deliberate indifference to the medical needs of the detainee

         The plaintiffs contend that Brown's constitutional rights were violated when the defendants acted with deliberate indifference to provide him with his blood pressure medicine and adequate medical care.“A prison official violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment when his conduct demonstrates deliberate indifference to a prisoner's serious medical needs, constituting an unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain.”[38] Deliberate indifference in the context of the failure to provide reasonable medical care means that: (1) the prison officials were aware of facts taken from which an inference of substantial risk of serious harm could be drawn; (2) the officials actually drew that inference; and (3) the officials' response indicated that they subjectively intended that harm occur.[39]

         To meet the deliberate indifference standard, a plaintiff must show that the officials “refused to treat him, ignored his complaints, intentionally treated him incorrectly, or engaged in any similar conduct that would clearly evince a wanton disregard for any serious medical needs.[40] Deliberate indifference may be exhibited by medical personnel in response to a prisoners' needs, but it may also be shown when prison officials have denied an inmate prescribed treatment or have denied him access to medical personnel capable of evaluating the need for treatment.[41]

         Pretrial detainees also have a constitutional right not to have confining officials treat their basic needs - including a need for reasonable medical care - with deliberate indifference, under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.[42] This right was clearly established law at the time of the incident in question.[43]

         “The State's exercise of its power to hold detainees and prisoners. . . brings with it a responsibility under the U.S. Constitution to tend to the essentials of their well-being: when the State by the affirmative exercise of its power so restrains an individual's liberty that it renders him unable to care for himself, and at the same time fails to provide for his basic human needs . . . it transgresses the substantive limits on state action set by the Eighth Amendment and the Due Process Clause.”[44]

         A party alleging that an “episodic act or omission” resulted in an unconstitutional violation of a pretrial detainee's Fourteenth Amendment rights is required to show that the official's action constituted “deliberate indifference.”[45] An episodic act or omission of a state official does not violate a pretrial detainee's due process right to medical care unless the official acted or failed to act with subjective deliberate indifference to the detainee's rights, as defined by the United States Supreme Court. “[D]eliberate indifference entails something more than mere negligence [and]. . . something less than acts or omissions for the very purpose of causing harm or with knowledge that harm will result.”[46] In other words, “deliberate indifference [lies] somewhere between the poles of negligence at one end and purpose or knowledge at the other.”[47] “[A]cting or failing to act with deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm to a prisoner is the equivalent of recklessly disregarding that risk.”[48] The Court also explained that to act recklessly in this context means to consciously disregard a substantial risk of serious harm.[49]

         The standards applicable to the facts of this case may be stated as follows:

A prison official acts with subjective deliberate indifference when he (1) “knew of” and (2) “disregarded an excessive risk to the [detainee's] health or safety.” Brumfield v. Hollins, 551 F.3d 322, 331 (5th Cir. 2008) (citing Gibbs v. Grimmette, 254 F.3d 545, 549 (5th Cir. 2001) (alteration in original).[50]

         E. There is a genuine issue of fact whether the decedentvoluntarily ...

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