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Garza v. City of Donna

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

April 26, 2019

JOSE LUIS GARZA, individually and as Representatives of The Estate of Jose Luis Garza, Jr., Deceased; VERONICA GARZA, individually and as Representatives of The Estate of Jose Luis Garza, Jr., Deceased; CYNTHIA LOPEZ, As Next Friend of Jose Ruben Garza, Minor Son, Plaintiffs - Appellants
CITY OF DONNA, Defendant-Appellee

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas

          Before JOLLY, DENNIS, and HIGGINSON, Circuit Judges.

          STEPHEN A. HIGGINSON, Circuit Judge.

         On February 19, 2016, in a detention facility operated by the Donna Police Department in Donna, Texas, Jose Luis Garza died by suicide. His estate and survivors brought this suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against a lone defendant, the City of Donna, alleging violations of the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause in the time leading up to, and immediately following, Garza's suicide. The district court granted summary judgment to the City, and we affirm.


         In the early morning of February 19, 2016, officers of the Donna Police Department ("DPD") responded to a 911 call by Veronica Garza. Her call concerned her son, Jose Luis Garza, who was heavily intoxicated and arguing with his brother at the family's home. Officer Mario Silva was the first to respond at around 5:40 AM, with two other DPD officers soon joining. Veronica told officers that "I feared for his life" and "I'm afraid of him hurting himself." Officer Silva arrested Jose Luis Garza for "assault by threat" and transported him to DPD's facility. Though called a "jail," the district court clarified that it is "a short-term holding facility where--unlike a county jail or state prison-- detainees do not stay long." Officer Silva booked Garza into the jail and placed him in a cell just after 6 AM. Officer Silva took no particular mental-health precautions when he brought Garza to the jail.

         Garza was placed in a cell that contained a camera, and some time after 8 AM, he obscured the camera's lens. A DPD employee, Minerva Perez, was tasked with monitoring the jail's camera feeds under the jail's written policy. Her shift had begun at 6 AM, and during the morning, she answered 911 calls, one of her other duties. She did not notice that Garza had blocked the camera in his cell. She would later assert that, once jailers arrived to start their shifts, it was their responsibility to monitor the jail's inmates.

         Those jailers were Esteban Garza--no relation to the decedent--and Nathan Coronado, who started their shifts at 8 AM. The jailers heard Garza banging on his cell door and making other noise to get their attention. It is disputed whether Garza's noisemaking prompted the jailers to check on him. The jail's written policy required hourly cell checks. The jail's log showed a check was done at 8:10 AM, though the check was not recorded contemporaneously.[1] After that point, the jailers worked on signs that DPD's police chief, Ruben De Leon, directed them to put up in the jail. One read "Welcome to Donna Hilton, "[2] and another showed the logo of the Punisher, a comic-book character known for carrying out vigilante justice. Occupied with the signs, the jailers missed that Garza had hanged himself, and it took the chance arrival of agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for Garza's suicide to be discovered. The ICE agents had arrived at 8:40 AM and found him at 8:49 AM. It was unclear how long he had been hanging.

         Once Garza was discovered hanging, roughly two minutes passed before Lieutenant Rene Rosas and Captain Ricardo Suarez of DPD began performing CPR on him. During this time, emergency help was called, and it arrived in the form of Hidalgo County emergency medical technician Frank Tafolla. Rosas and Suarez had vigorously performed CPR in the interim, but they did not answer Tafolla's questions about what had happened to Garza. Consequently, Tafolla, who transported Garza to the hospital, lacked information to relay to hospital staff upon arrival. Garza was pronounced dead at the hospital at 9:12 AM.

         This lawsuit against the City of Donna via 42 U.S.C. § 1983 followed. Garza's estate, mother, and son alleged violations of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment in the hours leading up to Garza's suicide and in the moments that followed. Their suit called five aspects of the events of February 19 into question, each implicating the actions of different DPD employees: Officer Silva, the arresting officer who booked Garza into the jail; Minerva Perez, the employee allegedly responsible for watching the camera monitoring Garza's cell; the two jailers, Esteban Garza and Nathan Coronado, who were present but did not discover Garza's suicide; the two senior DPD officers, Lieutenant Rosas and Captain Suarez, who performed CPR on Garza but allegedly did not relate information to Tafolla, the EMT; and the police chief, Ruben De Leon, whose instruction to install the "Donna Hilton" and Punisher signs had allegedly occupied the two jailers' attention that morning. The district court rejected each proposed basis for municipal liability and granted summary judgment to the City, from which this appeal arises.


         Summary judgment is appropriate if "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). We review the district court's decision de novo, applying the same legal standard used by the district court. Hyatt v. Thomas, 843 F.3d 172, 176-77 (5th Cir. 2016). We view all evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant and draw all reasonable inferences in its favor. E.E.O.C. v. LHC Group, Inc., 773 F.3d 688, 694 (5th Cir. 2014).


         "The constitutional rights of a pretrial detainee . . . flow from both the procedural and substantive due process guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment." Hare v. City of Corinth, Miss., 74 F.3d 633, 639 (5th Cir. 1996) (en banc) (citing Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979)). These rights include the right to medical care, Sanchez v. Young County, Tex., 866 F.3d 274, 279 (5th Cir. 2017), and the right to protection from known suicidal tendencies, Flores v. County of Hardeman, Tex., 124 F.3d 736, 738 (5th Cir. 1997).

         A municipality may be liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for the violation of these rights. See Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of City of N.Y., 436 U.S. 658, 690 (1978). When attributing violations of pretrial detainees' rights to municipalities, the cause of those violations is characterized either as a condition of confinement or as an episodic act or omission. Hare, 74 F.3d at 644. Cases of the former are attacks on "general conditions, practices, rules, or restrictions of pretrial confinement." Id. In cases of the latter, "the complained-of harm is a particular act or omission of one or more officials," ...

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