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Hughes v. Three Forks Regional Jail Authority

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

September 12, 2019

KIMBERLY HUGHES, and JENNIFER SMITH, as Co-Administrators of the Estate of Clyde Smith, Jr., Plaintiffs,

          OPINION & ORDER

          Robert E. Wier United States District Judge.

         Clyde Smith, Jr. died after roughly 7 hours in custody at Three Forks Regional Jail.[1] His daughters, as estate administrators, [2] allege that unidentified Jail personnel knowingly and recklessly failed to provide Smith oxygen (and other medications) that his medical conditions required. Defendants-the Jail, its tri-county operators (Lee, Owsley, and Wolfe Counties), and administrator (Harvey Pelfrey)[3]-contend that Plaintiffs fail to plausibly allege a basis for their liability, and thus move for dismissal. For the reasons fully explained below, the Court finds the Complaint deficient as to the federal claims, declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the undisposed state claims, and grants Defendants' motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The Estate bases its claims on the following straightforward factual allegations.[4]Clyde Smith, Jr., 55 years old, had a history of serious heart and respiratory conditions that required continuous oxygen tank access and regular medication. On March 11, 2018, Breathitt County authorities arrested Smith for DUI and, at roughly 5:00 p.m., transported Smith to Three Forks. During two, 6:51 p.m. and 7:32 p.m., calls, Smith's daughter Hughes advised unidentified Jail personnel of the importance of his access to oxygen and other medications. Unknown Jail staff advised that oxygen was available and that personnel were aware of Smith's conditions and would provide for his needs.

         Shortly after midnight on March 12, Smith died; Plaintiffs allege this resulted from lack of medical care and attention. Several hours later, an unknown (male) Jail employee called Hughes to advise of Smith passing. The employee further stated that the Jail did not have oxygen on site and that any prior assurances of oxygen availability “depended on whether another inmate had oxygen.” DE 1 at ¶ 6.

         Based on these facts, the Estate claims violations of various constitutional provisions under 42 U.S.C § 1983 and levels state law theories against all Defendants. DE 1 at ¶¶ 15-16. Defendants pursue Rule 12 dismissal of all claims. DE 5 (Motion). The motion stands fully briefed and ripe for review. DE 6 (Response); DE 7 (Reply).


         To survive a motion to dismiss, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1974 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. However, “a formulaic recitation of a cause of action's elements will not do[.]” Twombly, 127 S.Ct. at 1965. Courts “must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and accept all allegations as true.” Keys, 684 F.3d at 608. Yet, courts need not accept “legal conclusion[s] couched as [ ] factual allegation[s].” Papasan v. Allain, 106 S.Ct. 2932, 2944 (1986). The Court evaluates and tests the well-pleaded Complaint contents. Peterson v. Ostrander, No. 17-2160, 2018 WL 4739692, at *2 (6th Cir. Apr. 6, 2018) (“[T]he court must confine its analysis to the pleadings and accept all well-pleaded allegations as true.”).

         Generally, “matters outside of the pleadings are not to be considered” by a court in ruling on a motion to dismiss. Hammond v. Baldwin, 866 F.2d 172, 175 (6th Cir. 1989). However, the Court may “consider other materials that are integral to the complaint, are public records, or are otherwise appropriate for the taking of judicial notice.” Ashland, Inc. v. Oppenheimer & Co., 648 F.3d 461, 467 (6th Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         Hinging on Rule 8's minimal standards, Twombly and Iqbal require a plaintiff to “plead facts sufficient to show that her claim has substantive plausibility.” Johnson v. City of Shelby, 135 S.Ct. 346, 347 (2014). Where plaintiffs state “simply, concisely, and directly events that . . . entitle[ ] them to damages, ” the rules require “no more to stave off threshold dismissal for want of an adequate statement[.]” Id.; El-Hallani v. Huntington Nat. Bank, 623 Fed.Appx. 730, 739 (6th Cir. 2015) (“Although Twombly and Iqbal have raised the bar for pleading, it is still low.”).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Preliminary Matters

         Before proceeding to the disputed claims (and to focus the analysis), the Court finds it appropriate to thin the claim herd. First, Plaintiffs concede that certain pleaded claims lack viability. The Estate acknowledges that pretrial detainees challenging conditions of confinement are entitled to Fourteenth Amendment, rather than Eighth Amendment, protections. See DE 6 at 4; Ingraham v. Wright, 97 S.Ct. 1401, 1412 n.40 (1977) (“[T]he State does not acquire the power to punish with which the Eighth Amendment is concerned until after it has secured a formal adjudication of guilt in accordance with due process of law. Where the State seeks to impose punishment without such an adjudication, the pertinent constitutional guarantee is the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”). Practically, the rubric is the same.[5] Nonetheless, this point justifies dismissal of the Eighth Amendment claim. Similarly, the Estate concedes that “sovereign immunity bars” its “claims under state tort law against the jail and Municipal Defendants.” DE 6 at 12.[6] This concession also forecloses the Estate's state claims against the Jailer and the “Unknown Agent Employees of Three Forks Regional Jail”[7] in their official capacities. DE 1 at 1; see Kentucky v. Graham, 105 S.Ct. 3099, 3105 (1985) (“[A]n official-capacity suit is, in all respects other than name, to be treated as a suit against the entity[.]”). The Court, thus, dismisses such claims.

         Second, the Court treats Plaintiffs' failure to oppose several of Defendants' dismissal arguments as effectively abandoning the challenged claims. See Humphrey v. U.S. Attorney Gen.'s Office, 279 Fed.Appx. 328, 331 (6th Cir. 2008) (“[W]here, as here, plaintiff has not raised arguments in the district court by virtue of his failure to oppose defendants' motions to dismiss, the arguments have been waived.”); Scott v. State of Tenn., 878 F.2d 382 (6th Cir. 1989) (“[I]f a plaintiff fails to respond or to otherwise oppose a defendant's motion, then the district court may deem the plaintiff to have waived opposition to the motion. See Elmore v. Evans, 449 F.Supp. 2, 3 (E.D. Tenn. 1976), aff'd, 577 F.2d 740 (6th Cir. 1978) (unpublished per curiam).”); see also LR 7.1(c). Specifically, the Estate does not oppose challenges to the Fifth and Tenth Amendment § 1983 theories. See DE 5-1 at 6-7. Accordingly, the Court dismisses such claims for the reasons the motion advances.

         Finally, and though Defendants offer only a brief, general argument on the issue, see DE 5-1 at 1, the Court sees absolutely no factual allegations in support of the Complaint's bare Fourth Amendment assertion.[8] This matter involves no warrant, and Plaintiffs do not challenge the reasonableness of any search or Mr. Smith's seizure. Thus, the Court, perceiving no theory of merit, dismisses the Fourth Amendment challenge.

         The Court turns to the parties' disputes regarding the winnowed claim slate, including Plaintiffs': (1) Fourteenth Amendment § 1983 claims against all defendants and (2) state-law, individual-capacity claims against the Jailer.

         B. Fourteenth Amendment Claims

         The § 1983 claims fall into two categories: (1) the individual capacity claim against the Jailer, and (2) the claims asserted either directly, or via official capacity, against the County Defendants.[9]

         Deliberate Indifference Standard

         The Estate, to survive the instant motion, needed to allege “facts that, if proven, would show that prison officials acted with ‘deliberate indifference' towards conditions at the prison that created a substantial risk of serious harm. . . . This test involves both an objective and subjective component.” Brown v. Bargery, 207 F.3d 863, 867 (6th Cir. 2000) (internal citations omitted). Defendants do not, for 12(b)(6) purposes, dispute the pleading's viability as to the objective portion.[10]

         The subjective component requires officials to act (or fail to act, in context) with “deliberate indifference to inmate health or safety[.]” Farmer, 114 S.Ct. at 1977 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Per the cases, deliberate indifference, in turn, has subjective and objective components. Perez v. Oakland Cnty., 466 F.3d 416, 423 (6th Cir. 2006).[11] “[T]he deliberate indifference standard ‘describes a state of mind more blameworthy than negligence[.]” Brown, 207 F.3d at 867. A plaintiff must plausibly allege that a defendant knew of and disregarded conditions objectively posing “an excessive risk to inmate health or safety[, ]” and did so with a sufficiently culpable state of mind. Id. The objective portion, again (for present purposes), stands undisputed, i.e., the Estate plausibly claims that Smith had a sufficiently serious medical need.

         “In considering the subjective component, [the Sixth C]ircuit has emphasized that a plaintiff must produce evidence showing that the official being sued subjectively perceived facts from which to infer substantial risk to the prisoner, that he did in fact draw the inference, and that he then disregarded that risk.” Perez, 466 F.3d at 424; Rouster v. Cty. of Saginaw, 749 F.3d 437, 446 (6th Cir. 2014) (setting out test). Deliberate indifference is “a stringent standard of fault, requiring proof that a municipal actor disregarded a known or obvious consequence of his action.” Connick v. Thompson, 131 S.Ct. 1350, 1360 (2011) (quoting Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs of Bryan Cnty., Okla. v. Brown, 117 S.Ct. 1382, 1391 (1997)); see also Farmer, 114 S.Ct. at 1980 (adopting “subjective recklessness” as the test for deliberate indifference). However, “deliberate indifference . . . is satisfied by something less than acts or omissions for the very purpose of causing harm or with knowledge that harm will result.” Farmer, 114 S.Ct. at 1978. “[T]he subjective intentions of prison authorities must be demonstrated by objective manifestations of such intent, and cannot be proved by factually unsupported, conclusory opinions of the court or of the prisoners or their representatives.” United States v. Michigan, 940 F.2d 143, 154 n.7 (6th Cir. 1991). However, “courts may infer the existence of this subjective state of mind from the fact that the risk of harm is obvious[, ]” Warren, 576 Fed.Appx. at 553 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Hope v. Pelzer, 122 S.Ct. 2508, 2514 (2002)), or in other “usual ways, including inference from circumstantial evidence.” Id. (quoting Farmer, 114 S.Ct. at 1981).

         Jailer - Failure to Train & Supervisory Liability

         The Estate does not claim that the Jailer, in his individual capacity, was directly deliberately indifferent to Smith's needs. Indeed, the Complaint does not allege that Pelfrey was even at the Jail or played a direct factual role on the night in question. The complete pleaded facts specific to Pelfrey (other than identifying his general function, see DE 1 at ¶¶ 2 & 13) are as follows:

Defendant Harvey Pelfrey . . . established policies either formally or by custom for, and was responsible for the employment, training, supervision and conduct of, the officers and employees of the jail.

Id. at ¶ 13.[12] In contrast, the Estate explicitly links Smith's death to “certain acts or omissions” by “unknown agents of the jail[.]” Id. at ΒΆ 2. Thus, the Estate's theory is that Pelfrey's liability ...

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