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Lopez v. Hart County

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Bowling Green Division

September 28, 2018

REBECCA LOPEZ, as administratrix of the estate of Carl J. Smith, deceased PLAINTIFF


          Greg N. Stivers, Judge United States District Court

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants' Motions for Summary Judgment (DN 41, 42, 43). The motions have been fully briefed by the parties and are ripe for adjudication. For the reasons outlined below, the motions are GRANTED.


         On July 9, 2015, Carl J. Smith (“Smith”) was booked at the Hart County Jail on charges of driving while under the influence, and fleeing and evading police after an automobile accident on July 7, 2015. (Compl. ¶ 24, DN 1). During the intake process, Smith was administered a set of standard medical questions by Monica Arnett (“Arnett”) to identify any serious health or mental issues that needed to be addressed by the jail. (Compl. ¶ 25; Bergenson Dep. 15:5-16, 17:6-15, Sept. 6, 2017, DN 41-3). Smith disclosed an attempted suicide in 2009, which did not fall within the five-year lookback period covered in the questionnaire. (Bergenson Dep. 18:14-20). Smith disclosed a closed-head injury in 2014 and that he was a “slow learner” which could have affected his ability to understand the instructions of jail personnel. (Compl. ¶ 26). Because Smith's reported suicide attempt was more than five years old, he was placed with the jail's general population. (Compl. ¶ 26; Bergenson Dep. 18:14-22).

         On July 16, 2015, Smith had a verbal altercation with another inmate. Surveillance footage from the incident captured Smith banging his own head against a metal table. (Compl. ¶ 29; Bergenson Dep. 20:9-19). According to Jailer Israel Bergenson (“Bergenson”), Smith “slammed his head against the table once, just to act like he was a bully, how big and bad he was.” (Bergenson Dep. 20:9-14). Following the incident, jail personnel placed Smith in administrative segregation (“isolation”) for ten days as a disciplinary measure. (Compl. ¶¶ 30-31, Bergenson Dep. 26:19-25, 27:8-15; Mabe Dep. 27:2-20, Sept. 6, 2017, DN 42-3). According to the Hart County Jail Policies and Procedures, deputies are required to perform hourly safety checks on the jail's general population and every twenty minutes for prisoners in isolation. (Pl.'s Resp. Mots. Summ. J Ex. 1, DN 46-1). Testimony indicated, however, that deputies routinely performed twenty-minute checks only for inmates on suicide watch, but that other inmates in isolation were checked on the same hourly schedule as the general population. (Bergenson Dep. 28:23-30:1, 54:24; Mabe Dep. 20:2-25).

         From 7:00 p.m. July 17, 2015, to 7:00 a.m. July 18, 2015, Deputy Jailer Arnold Mabe (“Mabe”) was the floor deputy responsible for the safety checks of the isolation section. (Compl. ¶ 33; Bergenson Dep. 56:18-57:24). On a normal shift, floor deputies perform cell checks, book inmates, do laundry, complete inmate request forms for books or other items, and perform various other duties. (Mabe Dep. 10:20-11:7, 14:2-15:13). During this shift, sometime between 12:10 a.m. and 2:40 a.m., Mabe discovered Smith's body hanging lifelessly from a bedsheet attached to the cell's air conditioning vent. (Compl. ¶¶ 11-12, 32, 34, 36; Mabe Dep. 7:6-8, 36:24-37:13). According to the daily log, the isolation safety checks were not completed during that shift on a regular twenty-minute basis. (Pl.'s Resp. Mots. Summ. J. Ex. 6, DN 46-6). From 8:30 a.m. on July 17, 2015, until Smith's body was found, he was checked roughly 15 times, but was not checked in the 2½ hours immediately preceding the discovery of Smith's suicide. (Compl. ¶¶ 11, 32-33).

         Following the incident, Bergenson conducted an investigation of the safety check logs and the jail's video surveillance footage and discovered “a problem with people not checking on inmates [in isolation] every twenty minutes.” (Bergenson Dep. 42:11-16, 58:20-59:10). Instead of conducting these safety checks, Bergenson testified that Mabe was simply “[h]anging around the booking desk.” (Bergenson Dep. 57:25-58:13). Mabe claims that he received a call about an inmate being transported for booking and was thus required to remain at the booking desk while the inmate was brought in. (Mabe Ans. Interrog. 13, DN 42-2). During the time in question, Thompson, who was assigned to another area of the jail, had come over to the isolation area and allegedly helped Mabe conduct the last entries in the nightly log, which was a common occurrence. (Bergenson Dep. 56:18-57:19).

         With regard to conducting safety checks on prisoners in isolation, Mabe stated that those inmates were not considered “special inmates” unless they were on suicide watch, that inmates in isolation were checked on the same hourly basis as the rest of the jail, and that no one in a supervisory role had ever told him that inmates in isolation should be checked every twenty minutes. (Mabe Dep. 13:14-23, 20:14-19, 22:11-24:8, 33:15-34:7). Thompson agreed that he was never trained or told to check on inmates in isolation on twenty-minute intervals. (Thompson Dep. 14:18-15:8, Sept. 6, 2017, DN 46-4). Conversely, Bergenson testified that jail deputies were all given copies of the policies and procedures, they signed paperwork indicating their understanding of the policies, and jail staff were consistently reminded to follow the jail's policies, including the twenty-minute checks on inmates in isolation. (Bergenson Dep. 40:12-17, 41:6-25). Bergenson stated that supervisors do not regularly review the handwritten logs to check the frequency of the safety checks performed by the jail deputies, but that the logs are reviewed occasionally. (Bergenson Dep. 53:2-54:16). Thompson, however, testified that he was not aware of any system in place to check the daily logs for compliance, and never himself checked another deputy's log entries. (Thompson Dep. 15:9-20, 41:11-17).

         Plaintiff filed this case on April 22, 2016, alleging three separate 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988 claims under the Fourteenth Amendment as well as state law tort actions for negligence per se, gross negligence per se, negligence, gross negligence, and three theories of vicarious liability. Besides naming Hart County, Kentucky, as a defendant, Plaintiff asserted claims against, inter alia, Bergenson, Mabe, and Thompson in both their individual and official capacities.[2]


         The Court has subject matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 because a federal question is presented and has supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff's state-law claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a) because the state-law claims arise from the same case or controversy.


         In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the Court must determine whether there is any genuine issue of material fact that would preclude entry of judgment for the moving party as a matter of law. See Fed. R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party bears the initial burden of stating the basis for the motion and identifying evidence in the record that demonstrates the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). If the moving party satisfies its burden, the non-moving party must then produce specific evidence proving the existence of a genuine dispute of fact for trial. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986).

         While the Court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, the non-moving party must do more than merely show the existence of some “metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986) (citation omitted). Rather, the non-moving party must present specific facts proving that a genuine factual dispute exists by “citing to particular parts of the materials in the record” or by “showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence . . . of a genuine dispute . . . .” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). “The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [non-moving party's] position will be insufficient” to overcome summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252.


         A. Section 1983 and 1988 Claim Against Hart County for Municipal Liability

         Defendant Hart County seeks summary judgment on Plaintiff's Section 1983 and 1988 claims for municipal liability. (Defs.' Mem. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. 16-22, DN 41-1 [hereinafter Bergenson & Hart Cty. Mot.]). In Plaintiff's response to the pending motions, Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed, inter alia, Counts I and II in which she asserted claims against various individual Defendants in both their individual and official capacities, and Counts I through III as to Bergenson. (Pl.'s Resp. Mots. Summ. J. 7, DN 46). Accordingly, the Court will grant summary judgment on those claims for the respective Defendants.

         Because Plaintiff has dismissed those claims, Hart County contends that it cannot be liable. (Defs.' Reply Mot. Summ. J. 2, DN 49). As the Sixth Court has held, “[i]f no constitutional violation by the individual defendants is established, the municipal defendants cannot be held liable under § 1983.” Watkins v. City of Battle Creek, 273 F.3d 682, 687 (6th Cir. 2001) (citing City of Los Angeles v. Heller, 475 U.S. 796, 799 (1986)). Because other courts have nevertheless still considered the merits of such a claim, the Court will do so, and as outlined below, Count III still fails. See Crocker v. Cty. of Macomb, 119 Fed.Appx. 718, 724 (6th Cir. 2005); see also Gray v. City of Detroit, 399 F.3d 612, 617 (6th Cir. 2005) (“It is arguable . . . that the District Court erred in its conclusion that ‘[i]f no constitutional violation by the individual defendants is established, the municipal defendants cannot be held liable under § 1983.' Assuming for the sake of argument that this Circuit permits a municipality to be held liable in the absence of any employee's committing a constitutional violation, the remaining question for us then is whether the City's policy makers' decisions regarding suicide prevention were themselves constitutional violations, as plaintiff contends.”).

         To establish liability under Section 1983, a plaintiff must prove that a policy or custom of the municipality caused the alleged constitutional violation. See Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978) (“[I]t is when execution of a government's policy or custom, whether made by its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy, inflicts the injury that the government as an entity is responsible under § 1983.”). In this case, Plaintiff has alleged:

Defendant HART COUNTY is the municipality for which the above referenced individual Defendants work, and HART COUNTY exhibited deliberate indifference to SMITH's 14th Amendment rights when it allowed a custom or practice with the force of law to develop that allowed civil rights violations to occur and had actual or constructive knowledge of same, and/or exhibited deliberate indifference when they failed to train, supervise, and/or discipline the individual defendants despite the obvious need to train, supervise and/or discipline them and/or is liable as the official final policymaker, BERGENSON participated in, acquiesced to, and/or allowed the above mentioned constitutional violations to occur.

(Compl. ΒΆ 67). Thus, Plaintiff has asserted claims relating to training, supervision, ...

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