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Arenas v. Calhoun

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

April 26, 2019

MARIA ARENAS, Individually, Plaintiff-Appellant,
JOHN CALHOUN, in His Individual Capacity, Defendant-Appellee.

          Appeals from the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas

          Before HIGGINBOTHAM, SMITH, and HIGGINSON, Circuit Judges.

          JERRY E. SMITH, Circuit Judge.

         While patrolling the administrative segregation unit of a state prison, Officer John Calhoun saw that inmate Richard Tavara was hanging from a noose around his neck with a bedsheet suspended from the ceiling sprinkler head. Because he was unable to see Tavara's feet through the small window in the cell door, Calhoun could not tell whether Tavara was actually hanging and in need of medical assistance or was staging suicide to draw officers into the cell for an ambush. Instead of rushing into a potentially dangerous situation, Calhoun immediately summoned backup and waited for his supervisor to determine when it was safe to open the door. By the time the officers entered the cell nearly seven minutes later, Tavara was dead.

         Maria Arenas sued Calhoun in his individual capacity under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that he had violated her son's Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment. The district court granted summary judgment for Calhoun. Because his actions did not amount to deliberate indifference, we affirm.


         Tavara struggled with severe depression throughout his twenty-four years. He dropped out of high school, had trouble sleeping, and often refused to eat. After he attempted suicide in 2008 by cutting himself, Tavara was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and hospitalized for about six weeks. He moved to Georgia to work on a construction project with his brother and, while there, was convicted of robbery by intimidation and sentenced to three years in prison.

         Tavara stood five feet, five inches tall and weighed 150 pounds. He had no incarcerations, gang affiliation, or violent disciplinary history. Upon entering the Georgia Department of Corrections ("GDOC"), he received a routine physical and mental health examination. The psychologist found that Tavara had not taken any medication in the past two years and appeared stable. As a result, he was classified as a "Level I" mental health inmate, indicating that no mental health services were necessary. When Tavara was transferred to Smith State Prison, the intake sheet showed that he had no chronic medical problems, was taking no medications, and was not a mental health patient.

         In December 2014, Tavara complained of chest pains and was examined by medical staff. Having refused to go to the hospital or return to the general-population dormitory, he was temporarily placed in administrative segregation pending further investigation. The following evening, Calhoun was in charge of monitoring Tavara's cellblock. Standing five feet, eleven inches tall and weighing 180 pounds, Calhoun was equipped with a stab-proof vest and a can of pepper spray. Calhoun had never seen Tavara before his shift and knew nothing of his mental issues or why he had been placed in administrative segregation.

         At about 10:49 p.m., Calhoun discovered Tavara with the noose around his neck.[1] Though the noose appeared "pretty tight," Calhoun was unable to see Tavara's feet through the small window in the cell door. Because Tavara might have been standing on a bed or a pile of books, Calhoun could not be sure whether the apparent suicide was genuine or feigned. Rather than rush headlong into a precarious situation, Calhoun immediately made four radio calls for assistance. Upon being assured that help was on its way, Calhoun retrieved the key to Tavara's cell from the control room. Unbeknownst to Calhoun, however, the officer at the control room had mistakenly handed him the wrong key. Over the next few minutes, Calhoun paced the cellblock and completed some paperwork while awaiting backup.

         At around 10:54, Sergeant Mark Shelby appeared and began to yell and pound on the cell door in an effort to get Tavara to respond. When Officer Adam Haas came about ten seconds later, Calhoun returned to his desk to fetch the key that he had inadvertently left there. Lieutenant Marvin Dickson then arrived, assessed the scene, and ordered the cell door opened. After unsuccessfully trying to unlock the door, Calhoun realized he had the wrong key and ran to the control room to collect the correct one.[2] Nearly seven minutes after Calhoun first saw Tavara hanging, the officers finally entered the cell. They removed Tavara from the noose, attempted CPR, notified emergency medical services, and videotaped their actions in accordance with prison policy. But by then, it was too late to resuscitate Tavara.

         Arenas sued in the Western District of Texas, where Calhoun was then residing. As proof of deliberate indifference to her son's serious medical needs, Arenas alleged Calhoun had flouted a GDOC standard operating procedure that requires an officer to "call for backup . . . and then immediately cut down the hanging inmate . . . and initiate CPR procedures." Ga. Dep't of Corr., Standard Operating Procedures VG68-0001, at 12 (2005). Calhoun insisted that the policy was inapplicable and that he was instead required to wait for at least one other officer before entering Tavara's cell.

         Calhoun filed a motion to dismiss, which the district court denied. After discovery, Calhoun moved for summary judgment on the underlying merits and on the basis of qualified immunity ("QI"). The court granted summary judgment for Calhoun because, before that evening, he had lacked subjective knowledge of a substantial risk to Tavara's life. Additionally, the court held that Calhoun's response to the suicide did not amount to deliberate indifference but was, at most, grossly negligent.


         We review a summary judgment de novo, applying the same standards as the district court. Milton v. Tex. Dep't of Criminal Justice, 707 F.3d 570, 572 (5th Cir. 2013). We construe all facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmovant. Id.

         The Eighth Amendment prohibits "cruel and unusual punishments." Bucklew v. Precythe, 139 S.Ct. 1112, 1123 (2019). Originally it was understood to "proscribe tortures and other barbarous methods of punishment" but was extended to ban "punishments which are incompatible with the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society" or "involve the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain." Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 102-03 (1976) (cleaned up). Though the "Constitution does not mandate comfortable prisons," "prison officials must ensure that inmates receive adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care, and . . . take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of the inmates." Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 832 (1994) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

         To prevail on an Eighth Amendment claim, an inmate must establish two elements. First, he must demonstrate that the alleged deprivation was objectively serious, exposing him "to a substantial risk of serious harm" and resulting "in the denial of the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities."[3]Second, an inmate must prove that the official possessed "a subjectively culpable state of mind"[4] in that he exhibited "deliberate indifference to serious medical needs."[5]

         "Deliberate indifference is an extremely high standard to meet." Domino v. Tex. Dep't of Criminal Justice, 239 F.3d 752, 756 (5th Cir. 2001). A prison official displays deliberate indifference only if he (1) "knows that inmates face a substantial risk of serious bodily harm" and (2) "disregards that risk by failing to take reasonable measures to abate it." Gobert, 463 F.3d at 346 (quoting Farmer, 511 U.S. at 847). Medical treatment that is merely unsuccessful or negligent does not constitute deliberate indifference, "nor does a prisoner's disagreement with his medical treatment, absent exceptional circumstances."[6]Rather, an inmate "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.'"[7]

         Suicide is an objectively serious harm implicating the state's duty to provide adequate medical care. See Hare v. City of Corinth, 74 F.3d 633, 644 (5th Cir. 1996) (en banc). Calhoun acknowledges that he knew Tavara faced a substantial risk of harm upon seeing him with a ligature around his neck. Thus, the only question is whether ...

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