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Doe v. Sutton-Wallace

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Charlottesville Division

May 9, 2019

Jane Doe, Plaintiff,
Pamela Sutton-Wallace, ET AL, Defendants.



         On January 11, 2018, a law enforcement officer found Plaintiff Jane Doe attempting suicide and transported her to the University of Virginia (“UVA”) Medical Center emergency department. Once at the emergency department, Plaintiff received treatment that she claims violated her constitutional rights and is actionable under Virginia law as gross negligence, assault and battery, and false imprisonment. Plaintiff has identified thirteen defendants in this action, one of whom, Defendant Dr. Scott A. Syverud, filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c). (Dkt. 26). The parties briefed the motion, and the Court held a hearing on the matter. Based on the current record, the Court concludes that Defendant Syverud is entitled to qualified immunity as to Plaintiff Doe's constitutional claims and that, as to Defendant Syverud, Plaintiff has failed to state a claim under Virginia law.

         I. Factual Background

         On January 11, 2018, Plaintiff attempted suicide by running a hose from the exhaust pipe of her car into the passenger compartment. (Dkt. 1 ¶ 9). Plaintiff was found in her car by a police officer who had her transported to the UVA Medical Center emergency department (“Medical Center”) “pursuant to a ‘paperless' custody order.” (Id. ¶ 10). While at the Medical Center, Plaintiff objected to giving blood or urine samples, but Defendant Carter[1] informed Plaintiff that the “Emergency Custody Order authorized the taking of samples and the provision of medications even if she objected.” (Id. ¶ 11). Because of her “strenuous objections to blood work and the urine sample, ” Plaintiff was administered injections meant to medically restrain her. (Id. ¶ 12) Plaintiff alleges that these medications were prescribed by Defendants Syverud and/or Root. (Id.). “Plaintiff was then surrounded by John Doe 1-5, her arm was held against her wishes, and blood extracted against her will.” (Id. ¶ 13). Plaintiff alleges that, because the medications did not have their desired effect, Defendant Carter injected her with ketamine, “another psychoactive drug.” (Id. ¶ 14). Plaintiff alleges that this injection was administered on the orders of Defendants Syverud and/or Root for the purpose of extracting urine. (Id.). Plaintiff claims that she was never advised regarding the administration or the side effects of the drugs. (Id. ¶ 15).

         After the drugs were administered, Plaintiff claims Defendants Carter and Bateman requested Plaintiff be physically restrained for the purpose of extracting urine, and that those restraints were ordered by Defendants Syverud and/or Root. (Id. ¶ 16). John Does 1-5 assisted in physically restraining Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 17). Because Plaintiff had refused to provide a urine sample, Defendants Syverud and/or Root, at the request of Defendant Carter, ordered the insertion of a urinary catheter into Plaintiff's bladder for urine extraction. (Id. ¶ 18). Defendants Jane Roes 1-3 assisted in this procedure. (Id. ¶ 19).

         Plaintiff claims that, at all times relevant to the complaint, she “was competent to make decisions concerning her treatment.” (Id. ¶ 20). Plaintiff is currently diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and has been actively involved in treatment for that condition, a condition “exacerbated” by Defendants' actions. (Id. ¶ 21). Plaintiff claims that it is the practice, in the Medical Center, “to force treatment and medications on unwilling but competent patients.” (Id. ¶ 22).

         Defendant Syverud admits that he was a medical doctor licensed to practice in the Commonwealth of Virginia, was a member of the clinical staff of the Medical Center, and that he was an attending physician for Plaintiff when she was transported to the Medical Center. (Dkt. 11 at 1). Defendant Syverud does not dispute that Plaintiff objected to the collection of blood and urine samples, but states “that because she was in emergency custody those specimens could be collected over her objection.” (Id. at 2). Defendant Syverud does not contest that Plaintiff was combative, or that drugs and physical restraints were used in order to obtain blood and urine samples. (Id. at 2-3). He does not contest that these methods were used by Medical Center staff at the orders of a Medical Center physician. (Id. at 3). Defendant Syverud admits that a urine sample was obtained via a catheter. (Id.). Finally, Defendant Syverud “admits that Plaintiff was not determined to lack capacity to consent to treatment during the time she was a patient at the” Medical Center. (Id.).

         II. Legal Standard

         A motion for judgment on the pleadings made pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c) is made after pleadings are closed, “but early enough not to delay trial.” The standard for Rule 12(c) motions is the same as for motions made pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). Burbach Broadcasting Co. of Delaware v. Elkins Radio Corp., 278 F.3d 401, 405-406 (4th Cir. 2002). Accordingly, “we assume the facts alleged in the complaint are true and draw all reasonable factual inferences in [Plaintiff's] favor.” Id. However, the complaint must state a claim that is plausible on its face, and the Court will not accord the presumption of truth to legal conclusions couched as factual allegations. McCleary-Evans v. Maryland Dept. of Transp., State Highway Admin., 780 F.3d 582 (4th Cir. 2015) (citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009) and Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007)). See also Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986); SD3, LLC v. Black & Decker, Inc., 801 F.3d 412, 422 (4th Cir. 2015).

         III. Argument

         Defendant Syverud argues that judgment on the pleadings is appropriate because: (1) he is entitled to qualified immunity with respect to Plaintiff's § 1983 claims; (2) Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate Defendant Syverud acted under the color of state law;[2] (3) Defendant Syverud's conduct was legally justified or excused; (4) Plaintiff's state law claims fail to state a claim; and (5) Plaintiff's attempted suicide bars her federal and state law claims.[3] The Court first turns to the question of qualified immunity.

         A. Qualified Immunity

         “Generally, qualified immunity operates to protect law enforcement and other government officials from civil damages liability for alleged constitutional violations stemming from their discretionary functions.” Raub v. Campbell, 785 F.3d 876, 880-81 (4th Cir. 2015) (internal citations omitted). “Officials are not liable for bad guesses in gray areas; they are liable for transgressing bright lines.” Id. at 881 (internal quotations omitted). The Fourth Circuit's “qualified immunity analysis typically involves two inquiries: (1) whether the plaintiff has established the violation of a constitutional right, and (2) whether that right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation.” Id. (citing West v. Murphy, 771 F.3d 209, 213 (4th Cir. 2014)). These two questions should be addressed “in the order . . . that will best facilitate the fair and efficient disposition of each case.” Id.

         Here, the Court will begin with the second prong of the qualified immunity analysis: whether a right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation. This “turns on the objective legal reasonableness of [the defendant's action], assessed in light of the legal rules that were clearly established at the time it was taken.” Id. at 882. Therefore, the Court looks “not to whether the right allegedly violated was established as a broad general proposition, but whether it would be ...

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