Gohranson et al v. Snohomish County et al

Filing 142

ORDER granting in part and denying in part Snohomish County defendants' 82 Motion for Summary Judgment. Signed by Judge Robert S. Lasnik. (SWT)

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1 2 3 4 5 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT WESTERN DISTRICT OF WASHINGTON AT SEATTLE 6 7 8 JOHN T. GOHRANSON, et al., Plaintiffs, 9 v. 10 11 SNOHOMISH COUNTY, et al., 12 Defendants. NO. C16-1124RSL ORDER GRANTING IN PART MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ON FEDERAL CLAIMS 13 14 This matter comes before the Court on the supplemental memoranda submitted by the 15 parties applying Kingsley v. Hendrickson, __ U.S. __, 135 S. Ct. 2466 (2015), and Gordon v. 16 County of Orange, 888 F.3d 1118 (9th Cir. 2018) to the facts of this case, discussing the impact 17 of the new case law on the qualified immunity analysis, and addressing the substantive due 18 process claim asserted by Dale Kronberger. Having reviewed the supplemental memoranda and 19 the remainder of the record, and taking the facts in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, the 20 Court finds as follows: 21 A. Violation of Lindsay M. Kronberger’s Rights Under the Fourteenth Amendment 1 22 Until 2015, a detainee alleging that the government had been deliberately indifferent to 23 24 25 26 27 28 1 Because Ms. Kronberger was a pre-trial detainee and was not being held as a punishment following conviction, the substantive due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provides the analytical framework to evaluate the government’s actions in this case. See Lolli v. County of Orange, 351 F.3d 410, 418-19 (9th Cir. 2003). ORDER GRANTING IN PART MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ON FEDERAL CLAIMS - 1 1 her medical needs had to show that defendants were subjectively aware of a substantial risk of 2 serious harm when they failed to provide medical care. The Court previously found that 3 plaintiffs’ medical care claim would fail under that standard “because they have not produced 4 evidence that any of the corrections officers or nurses who interacted with Ms. Kronberger in the 5 week before her death recognized that her medical condition had transitioned from the horror 6 that is opiate withdrawal to a life-threatening electrolyte imbalance.” Dkt. # 136 at 5-6. The 7 contours of a pretrial detainee’s medical care claims under the Due Process Clause have changed 8 since 2015, however, such that custodians can now be liable in the absence of subjective 9 knowledge if a “reasonable official in the circumstances would have appreciated the high degree 10 of risk involved.” Gordon, 888 F.3d at 1125. That fact is dispositive of the claims against the 11 individual defendants. 12 “[G]overnment officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from 13 liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory 14 or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 15 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). “[A] defendant cannot be said to have violated a clearly established 16 right unless the right’s contours were sufficiently definite that any reasonable official in the 17 defendant’s shoes would have understood that he was violating it.” Plumhoff v. Rickard, 572 18 U.S. 765, 134 S. Ct. 2012, 2023 (2014). When determining whether defendants are qualifiedly 19 immune from suit in this case, “the salient question . . . is whether the state of the law in [2014] 20 gave [defendants] fair warning that their alleged treatment of [Ms. Kronberger] was 21 unconstitutional.” Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 741 (2002).2 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 2 The Court declines to decide the first part of the qualified immunity analysis, namely whether the individual defendants’ conduct violated Ms. Kronberger’s constitutional rights under Kingsley and Gordon. Individual defendants made efforts to monitor Ms. Kronberger’s situation and responded to her needs with differing degrees of care. Taken together, those efforts were insufficient to avert the detainee’s death, but determining whether a particular defendant was simply negligent or was objectively and deliberately indifferent in the context of a not-enough-medical-care claim is extremely ORDER GRANTING IN PART MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ON FEDERAL CLAIMS - 2 1 As discussed above, defendants’ conduct was not unconstitutional in 2014 because they 2 were not subjectively aware that Ms. Kronberger was suffering from life-threatening dehydration 3 and electrolyte imbalance. The announcement of an objective standard for judging defendants’ 4 conduct post-dated the events that gave rise to this litigation and imposed additional 5 requirements on defendants. Previously, custodial and medical staff were required to respond to 6 the facts of which they were aware: now they must consider the possibility that additional 7 inquiry, evaluation, or testing is necessary to ensure that they are correctly apprehending the 8 risks involved and are being reasonably responsive to those risks. Because there was no clearly 9 established right to medical attention from jail staff who did not actually perceive the need for 10 such attention in 2014, qualified immunity bars plaintiffs’ Fourteenth Amendment claim for lack 11 of adequate medical care. See Bailey v. Feltmann, 810 F.3d 589, 593 (8th Cir. 2016) (qualified 12 immunity applies, in part, because it was not “clearly established that a standard of objective 13 reasonableness applies under the Due Process Clause” until Kingsley); Dyer v. Fyall, 322 14 F. Supp.3d 725, 740 (N.D. Tex. June 6, 2018) (“So, given that some Fifth Circuit cases require 15 plaintiffs to show intent to cause harm in medical-inattention cases and other[s] do not, there is 16 no clearly established right in the Fifth Circuit to be free from medical inattention by officers 17 who do not actually intend to cause harm.”). 18 B. Municipal Liability 19 Municipalities and other local government units can be sued for constitutional violations 20 under § 1983 if a municipal policy, practice, or custom caused the violation. Monell v. Dep’t of 21 Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690-91 (1978). A municipality cannot be held liable solely because it 22 employs a tortfeasor, however: its own conduct must be causally related to the constitutional 23 violation. Id. at 691-92. 24 25 26 27 28 challenging on both the facts and the law. The Court therefore exercises its discretion to address the “clearly established” prongs of the qualified immunity analysis first. Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009). ORDER GRANTING IN PART MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ON FEDERAL CLAIMS - 3 1 In the underlying motion papers, plaintiffs identify two municipal acts, omissions, 2 policies, or practices that were the moving force behind the alleged failure to provide adequate 3 medical care to Ms. Kronberger. First, plaintiffs assert that Snohomish County had no policies in 4 place to properly care for inmates who were withdrawing from opiods. Dkt. # 106 at 22. 5 Plaintiffs’ “no policy” argument is contradicted by the fact that the jail has a written policy 6 entitled “Referring & Caring for Prisoners with Drug & Alcohol Problems.” Dkt. # 83-1 at 6. 7 There is, however, an issue of fact regarding whether this policy was available to the staff when 8 Ms. Kronberger was detained. In September 2013, outside auditors found that intake staff were 9 unable to identify or locate applicable polices and procedures (Dkt. # 107-6 at 4), that requests 10 for medical protocols were unfulfilled, making it “unclear if they existed, or if they just were not 11 available,” (Dkt. # 107-6 at 5), and that nurses were doing what they were trained to do generally 12 without the assistance of approved health care policies and procedures (Dkt. # 107-7 at 6). The 13 written policy produced by defendants in this litigation was issued in 1994, became effective in 14 2000, and required medical staff to “monitor and document vital signs, contact Physician for 15 medical orders[,] and implement medical regime.” Dkt. # 83-1 at 6. There was no physician on 16 staff when the auditors were reviewing jail procedures, supporting the inference that the policy 17 was not in use at the time. 18 Plaintiffs also argued that the County had an affirmative policy and practice of failing to 19 provide adequate medical care to inmates at the jail. Dkt. # 106 at 22. As proof, plaintiffs rely in 20 part on the fact that seven individuals died while in custody between 2010 and 2013. Plaintiffs 21 offer no evidence regarding any of these deaths. There is no indication that they were caused by 22 a lack of medical care, much less untreated opiod withdrawal symptoms, and the fact finder 23 would have to impermissibly speculate regarding their circumstances in order to deem them 24 relevant to this case. 25 The deaths apparently prompted a number of reviews and reports that are relevant to this 26 case, however. The reports and recommendations, provided to the County in August and 27 ORDER GRANTING IN PART MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ON FEDERAL CLAIMS - 4 28 1 September 2013, highlight deficiencies within the jail generally and inadequacies in the 2 provision of medical services particularly. See Dkt. # 107-7 at 4 (“Inmate crowding continues to 3 exist, health care and custody staffing levels are insufficient to ensure consistent assessment of 4 inmate health care needs and delivery of services care [sic] by qualified health care providers.”). 5 The report provided by Pierce County representatives specifically identified concerns regarding 6 the treatment of withdrawal patients, noting that the medical unit is understaffed and cannot 7 provide the level of monitoring and assessments that substance abusers require when taken into 8 custody. Dkt. # 107-3. The auditors generally recommended increasing medical staffing levels 9 and training, hiring a supervising physician, reviewing and instituting health care policies and 10 protocols, and improving medical recordkeeping. 11 The evidence could support the conclusion that the County was aware that the jail’s 12 policies and procedures - including staffing levels, written protocols, oversight mechanisms, and 13 medical records - gave rise to a substantial risk that detoxing inmates and detainees would not 14 receive adequate medical care. One could also reasonably conclude that, had the County 15 followed the auditors’ recommendations before Ms. Kronberger was taken into custody, her 16 entire detox history starting on January 3, 2014, would have been available to the intake and 17 medical staff, she would have been monitored more closely, and her medical treatment would 18 have been supervised by a physician who was trained to recognize the signs of severe 19 dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. A reasonable jury could, therefore, conclude that the 20 County failed to act to ameliorate a known risk, evidencing deliberate indifference that was 21 causally linked to the constitutionally inadequate care of which plaintiffs complain. Defendants 22 point out that the County hired a physician in August 2013 to consult on medically serious or 23 complex cases, review medical services provided by the nursing staff, review and approve 24 medical polices on an annual basis, and provide input and recommendations on an electronic 25 medical records system. Dkt. # 107-5 at 3. It is undisputed, however, that the physician had not 26 yet updated relevant policies, had not modernized the medical records system, did not evaluate 27 ORDER GRANTING IN PART MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ON FEDERAL CLAIMS - 5 28 1 Ms. Kronberger or her medical records at any point, and did not consult on her care: in short, his 2 hiring arguably made no tangible or relevant difference to Ms. Kronberger and did not break the 3 direct causal connection between the County’s policies and her death. Plaintiffs have raised a 4 genuine issue of fact regarding the County’s liability for the alleged failure to provide adequate 5 medical care.3 6 D. Violation of Dale Kronberger’s Rights Under the Fourteenth Amendment 7 “Parents . . . may assert Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process claims if they are 8 deprived of their liberty interest in the companionship and society of their child . . . through 9 official conduct.” Lemire v. Cal. Dep’t of Corrs. and Rehab., 726 F.3d 1062, 1075 (9th Cir. 10 2013). The parties agree that, if plaintiffs are able to establish that defendants were deliberately 11 indifferent to Ms. Kronberger’s right to adequate medical care, “such indifference may also ‘rise 12 to the conscience-shocking level’ required for a substantive due process violation.” Id. 13 Defendants make no effort to distinguish the two claims, instead declaring that the elements of 14 Mr. Kronberger’s substantive due process claim “are indistinguishable from the Estate’s claim of 15 deliberate indifference.” Dkt. # 137 at 16. Mr. Kronberger’s Section 1983 claim against the 16 County may therefore proceed. 17 18 For all of the foregoing reasons, the Snohomish County defendants’ motion for summary 19 3 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 Defendants suggest that the auditors’ reports are irrelevant because they describe the situation in the jail four or five months before Ms. Kronberger was taken into custody and argue that plaintiffs must provide an analysis of the jail’s staffing levels and policies as of January 2014 in order to prove their case. Dkt. # 114 at 5. Defendants offer no authority for the contention that a relatively recent report identifying shortcomings that impacted the decedent should be ignored simply because it is a few months old. The reports are evidence that the medical services provided in the jail were inadequate shortly before Ms. Kronberger was taken into custody and that the County was aware of the inadequacies. Defendants are free to rebut the inference of deliberate indifference by showing that they had, in fact, taken steps to correct the identified deficiencies as of January 2014. Or they may attempt to rebut the inference of causation by showing that none of the deficiencies was causally related to Ms. Kronberger’s death. In these circumstances, the burden is on defendants to produce evidence rebutting the reasonable inferences that arise from the auditors’ reports. ORDER GRANTING IN PART MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ON FEDERAL CLAIMS - 6 1 judgment on all federal claims (Dkt. # 82) is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part. The 2 Section 1983 claims against the individual defendants are DISMISSED on qualified immunity 3 grounds. The Section 1983 claims against Snohomish County may proceed. 4 5 Dated this 13th day of November, 2018. 6 A 7 Robert S. Lasnik United States District Judge 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 ORDER GRANTING IN PART MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ON FEDERAL CLAIMS - 7

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