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Reid v. Newton

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

April 14, 2014

JANET CUSTALOW REID, Plaintiff,
v.
JEFFREY L. NEWTON, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JAMES R. SPENCER, Senior District Judge.

THIS MATTER is before the Court on six Motions to Dismiss filed by various Defendants. On August 19, 2011, Jason Paul Johnson ("Johnson") committed suicide while he was incarcerated at Riverside Regional Jail ("Jail"). His mother, Janet Custalow Reid ("Reid") filed a three-count Amended Complaint (ECF No. 1 Attach. 9) against nineteen (19) Defendants alleging gross negligence resulting in wrongful death under state law (Count One), violations of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count Two), and a claim for punitive damages (Count Three).

Before this action was removed to federal court on August 22, 2013, Defendant Jeffrey L. Newton ("Newton") filed a demurrer, which the parties have treated and briefed as a motion to dismiss ("Newton Motion"). Defendant Terrance Hicks ("Hicks") filed a Motion to Dismiss ("Hicks Motion") (ECF No. 11) on October 7, 2013. Defendant Ashley Williams ("Williams") filed a Motion to Dismiss ("Williams Motion") (ECF No. 14) on October 7, 2013. Defendant Leon Jordan ("Jordan") filed a Motion to Dismiss ("Jordan Motion") (ECF No. 19) on October 8, 2013. Also on October 8, 2013, Defendants Dankyi M. Ansong ("Ansong"), Andrea Canada ("Canada"), S. Creel ("Creel"), S. Deloatch ("Deloatch"), G. Grant ("Grant"), Andrea Humphrey ("Humphrey), J. Lafland ("Lafland"), J. P. Miller ("Miller"), K. Moore ("Moore"), T. Rawlings ("Rawlings"), and Gerald Whitebread ("Whitebread") filed a Motion to Dismiss ("Ansong Motion") (ECF No. 21).[1] Finally, Defendants Derrick D. Day ("Day") and Jordan M. Jennings ("Jennings") filed a Motion to Dismiss ("Day Motion") (ECF No. 25) on October 9, 2013.[2] The two remaining Defendants did not join in any of these motions to dismiss, and default has been entered against one of them.

I. BACKGROUND[3]

A. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Jason Paul Johnson was born in Chesterfield, Virginia in 1982 and, after graduating high school in 2000, worked as a machinist and welder for his family's business. Johnson had a history of mental illness and depression dating back to 1988, when his father passed away. Beginning around 2000, Johnson began abusing alcohol, but sought counseling for his alcoholism and psychiatric issues. By 2011, he was a recovering alcoholic.

On April 13, 2011, Johnson was convicted of a misdemeanor by a Chesterfield County court and received a six-month suspended sentence. He was subsequently arrested and placed into custody by order of July 19, 2011, pending a court date scheduled for September 27, 2011. Johnson was held without bail at the Chesterfield County Jail ("CCJ"). Upon admission to CCJ, Johnson disclosed his medical history, including the facts that he suffered from seizures and was a recovering alcoholic.

On August 17, 2011, Johnson was charged with attempted escape and was ordered to appear in court the following day. Also on August 17, 2011, Johnson attempted to take his own life using a T-shirt, shoe laces, and a cord; however, CCJ employees intervened and prevented Johnson from harming himself. In response to Johnson's conduct, CCJ personnel documented Johnson's suicide attempt, performed psychiatric assessments, designated Johnson a "suicide risk" in CCJ's case management system, placed Johnson in "strip status, " and instituted a "15-minute watch" regimen.[4]

On August 18, 2011, Defendant Robert Penepacker ("Penepacker"), a sergeant at the Chesterfield County Sheriff's Office, called Lafland, a Records Supervisor at the Jail, and informed him that Johnson would be transferred to the Jail that day. Penepacker admits in his Answer that he informed Lafland of Johnson's suicide attempt and that CCJ responded by "plac[ing Johnson] in a padded cell with a smock." (Penepacker Answer ¶ 30.) However, in the Answer filed by Lafland and nine other defendants, this allegation is neither admitted nor denied on the basis of insufficient knowledge. Reid asserts that Lafland failed to document, relay, or act on this information.[5] Additionally, CCJ personnel generated documents pertaining to Johnson ("Transfer Documents"), which were received at the Jail on or before August 18, 2011. The Transfer Documents noted Johnson's "suicide risk" designation and include descriptions of Johnson's suicide attempt, psychiatric assessments, and the precautionary measures taken by CCJ.

Also on August 18, 2011, Johnson appeared in court and was transferred to the Jail, where he was to be held until trial on October 12, 2011. After Johnson arrived at the Jail, he was subjected to various procedures, including personal item inventory, review of medical and behavioral history, and interview ("Intake Procedures"). The Intake Procedures continued into the early-morning hours of August 19, 2011. One or more Defendants completed intake paperwork that noted Johnson's suicide attempt, and a psychiatric referral was initiated by Canada.

Despite documentation regarding Johnson's suicide attempt and specific instructions in the Transfer Documents, Johnson was assigned to a holding cell in "Pod A" rather than a cell designated for inmates who present a risk of self-harm. Pod A is a general population holding area where heightened monitoring, "strip status" confinement, and other precautionary measures are not taken. Johnson was not assigned a cellmate. Although a psychiatric referral was initiated, Defendants failed to take any precautionary measures to protect Johnson from harming himself or to monitor Johnson more frequently than other inmates. Defendants also failed to apply the Jail's suicide-prevention policies to Johnson.

On August 19, 2011, Johnson fashioned his bed sheets into a noose and hung himself from the ladder of a bunk bed in his cell. His body was discovered at approximately 10:25 a.m. Reid asserts that at the time of his death and for some time prior, Johnson was not of sound mind.

Reid originally brought suit against Riverside Regional Jail Authority ("RRJA"), but her complaint was dismissed on the grounds of sovereign immunity. She then filed suit against Newton in the Circuit Court of Chesterfield County ("Chesterfield Court"), which denied a demurrer filed by Newton. Subsequently, Reid filed the Amended Complaint, adding claims and eighteen additional defendants. Newton filed a demurrer, but the Chesterfield Court Judge recused himself prior to ruling on the demurrer, and Newton removed the action to this Court.

B. ALLEGATIONS AGAINST SPECIFICALLY IDENTIFIED DEFENDANTS

Each of the six motions to dismiss asserts, among other things, that dismissal is proper because Reid has failed to assert sufficient facts to plausibly allege a claim against any individual Defendant. Additionally, several of the motions to dismiss are made by groups of Defendants against whom different facts are alleged. A summary of the factual allegations, organized by the Defendant or Defendants against whom they are made, follows:

• Newton, superintendent of the Jail, "was responsible for establishing minimum performance standards and management practices to govern the Jail Defendants, had the primary responsibility for applying the Board of Corrections standards to the Jail, and is accountable for the acts and omissions of the other Jail Defendants." (Am. Compl. ¶ 44.)
• Penepacker called Lafland to inform him of Johnson's impending transfer to the Jail.
• Canada, Creel, Deloatch, Hicks, Lafland, Miller and Williams (collectively, "Intake Defendants") "were responsible for or otherwise involved in conducting, overseeing, or making decisions based on information obtained or available during the Intake Procedures." (Am. Compl. ¶ 34.)
• Canada, a Correctional Health Assistant, initiated a psychiatric referral and noted that Johnson "tried to commit suicide per Chesterfield Jail. Tried to tie a noose (shirt) around neck." (Am. Compl. ¶ 35.)
• Ansong, Day, Grant, Humphrey, Jennings, Taylor, and Whitebread (collectively, "Supervision Defendants") are alleged to have been "responsible for supervising or monitoring Mr. Johnson and other inmates at the Jail." (Am. Compl. ¶ 6.) Reid alleges that the Supervision Defendants failed to take precautionary steps against Johnson's known risk of self-harm.

There are no specific factual allegations as to Defendants Jordan, Moore, or Rawlings, beyond an allegation that they each were employed at the Jail in a particular capacity.[6]

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Rule 12 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows a defendant to raise a number of defenses to a complaint at the pleading stage, including failure to state a claim. A motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted challenges the legal sufficiency of a claim, rather than the facts supporting it. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6); Goodman v. Praxair, Inc., 494 F.3d 458, 464 (4th Cir. 2007); Republican Party of N.C. v. Martin, 980 F.2d 943, 952 (4th Cir. 1992). A court ruling on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion must accept all of the factual allegations in the complaint as true, see Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 244 (4th Cir. 1999); Warner v. Buck Creek Nursery, Inc., 149 F.Supp.2d 246, 254-55 (W.D. Va. 2001), in addition to any provable facts consistent with those allegations, Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 73 (1984), and must view these facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, Christopher v. Harbury, 536 U.S. 403, 406 (2002).

To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain factual allegations sufficient to provide the defendant with "notice of what the... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). Rule 8(a)(2) requires the complaint to allege facts showing that the plaintiff's claim is plausible, and these "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 & n.3. The Court need not accept legal conclusions that are presented as factual allegations, id. at 555, or "unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments, " E. Shore Mkts., Inc. v. J.D. Assocs. Ltd. P'ship, 213 F.3d 175, 180 (4th Cir. 2000).

Although a motion pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) invites an inquiry into the legal sufficiency of the complaint, not an analysis of potential defenses to the claims set forth therein, dismissal nevertheless is appropriate when the face of the complaint clearly reveals the existence of a meritorious affirmative defense." Brooks v. City of Winston-Salem, 85 F.3d 178, 181 (4th Cir. 1996). Qualified immunity is such an affirmative defense because, if applicable, qualified immunity includes "an entitlement not to stand trial or face the other burdens of litigation." Behrens v. Pelletier, 516 U.S. 299, 306 (1996) (quoting Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985)); see Jenkins v. Medford, 119 F.3d 1156, 1159 (4th Cir. 1997) (en banc).

III. DISCUSSION

Reid's Amended Complaint categorizes Defendants by their job duties and makes allegations against particular Defendants on the basis of those categories. For the purposes of assessing the sufficiency of the Amended Complaint's factual allegations, the Court will similarly categorize Defendants and separately consider legal arguments raised by individual Defendants.

A. CLAIMS AGAINST NEWTON

Reid alleges that Newton may be held liable under section 1983 for his deliberate indifference, and both personally and vicariously liable for causing Johnson's death by his own gross negligence and that of his subordinates. With regard to the section 1983 claim, she asserts that Newton may be held liable whether he had actual knowledge or constructive knowledge of Johnson's suicide risk. With regard to the gross negligence claim, Reid argues that Newton's position as Superintendent of the Jail is analogous to that of a ...


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