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Jackson v. West

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

June 3, 2015

VIVIAN JACKSON, Personal Representative of the Estate of Darius Johnell James, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
PRESTON WEST, in his individual capacity, RONALD BURNETTE, in his individual capacity, STANLEY ROSS, in his individual capacity, MARK MCEWAN, in his individual capacity, MICHAEL FORTE, in his individual capacity, JOSEPH LAVERTUE, in his individual capacity, DONALD THORSBERG, in his individual capacity, Defendants-Appellants

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Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida. D.C. Docket No. 5:10-cv-00568-WTH-PRL.

REVERSED AND REMANDED.

For VIVIAN JACKSON, Personal Representative of the Estate of Darius Johnell James, Plaintiff - Appellee: Peggy Anne Underbrink, Law Office of Peggy Underbrink, INDIANAPOLIS, IN.

For PRESTON WEST, in his individual capacity, RONALD BURNETTE, in his individual capacity, STANLEY ROSS, in his individual capacity, MARK MCEWAN, in his individual capacity, MICHAEL FORTE, in his individual capacity, JOSEPH LAVERTUE, in his individual capacity, DONALD THORSBERG, in his individual capacity, Defendants - Appellants: Linda LeVines Winchenbach, John M. Green, Jr., John M. Green, Jr., PA, OCALA, FL.

Before MARTIN and ROSENBAUM, Circuit Judges, and COOGLER,[*] District Judge.

OPINION

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MARTIN, Circuit Judge.

This case is about the tragic death, by suicide, of Darius Johnell James while he was in the custody of the Marion County Jail in Ocala, Florida. On October 14, 2007, Mr. James took his own life by hanging himself with a bed sheet. He was 22 years old at the time. Vivian Jackson, Mr. James's mother and the Personal Representative of his Estate, filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 complaint against the county sheriff in his official capacity and against ten corrections officers in their individual capacities. She alleged that these officers violated the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution by failing to prevent Mr. James's death. The District Court ruled that qualified immunity barred suit against three officers, but not against the remaining seven: Captains Burnett[1] and Forte, Corporals McEwan and West, Sergeant Ross, and Officers Lavertue and Thorsberg.[2] These officers appeal that order here. They argue that because they did not have subjective knowledge of a serious risk of suicide, they were not deliberately indifferent to Mr. James's taking of his own life. Our precedent requires us to agree, and we reverse.

I.

The details of Mr. James's stay in prison are lengthy but important. The defendants are entitled to qualified immunity unless they had subjective knowledge of a serious risk that Mr. James would attempt suicide.

Mr. James was arrested on June 30, 2007, for an alleged robbery and home invasion. When first admitted that day, Mr. James was given a suicide prevention screening by a licensed nurse employed by Prison Health Services--the independent contractor that provided medical and mental health care to inmates and pretrial detainees. That nurse noted that Mr. James said " he [was] ready to die," " talk[ed] about seeing evil," and " appear[ed] overly anxious, afraid or angry." He was assigned to " SP," the prison's suicide prevention section. The next day, July 1, a Prison Health Services counselor conducted a psychological exam. The counselor noted that Mr. James appeared " agitated" and " defensive" and thought " everyone wanted to kill him," but also noted that he denied any suicidal ideation at that time. Based on that assessment, the counselor directed that Mr. James be released from the suicide prevention section to the Charlie Foxtrot section, which housed inmates designated as " special needs."

At around 9 p.m. on July 1, Mr. James and three defendants, Officers Lavertue and Thorsberg, and Captain Burnett, were involved in an incident in the Charlie Foxtrot

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section. Another inmate named Evans began to shout verbal threats at an officer, and Mr. James " verbally agree[d] with him, nodd[ed] [his] head[] and pound[ed] [his] fist[] into his palm[], saying, 'yeah, yeah, let's get him.'" After Evans was restrained and removed from the Charlie Foxtrot section, Officer Thorsberg reported the following:

Sgt. Hampton [a non-party] then counseled with inmate James in the presence of writer [Officer Thorsberg] and Officer Lavertue. It was obvious to all officers that inmate James has certain anti-social, aggressive behavioral problems that may need to be addressed by the medical/psyc[h] department. Sgt. Hampton talked to medical and it was determined that inmate James would be placed on AC[3] confinement status pending a psychological exam. No [disciplinary report was] written due to his diminished mental capacity. Sgt. Hampton and Officer Lavertue escorted him to Alpha pod without further incident. Inmate James took his property with him.

Although he was not present for the incident, Captain Burnett, as watch commander, was required to read this narrative at the end of his shift.

The next day, July 2, Mr. James met with a Prison Health Services counselor. He told the counselor that he was " god's chosen one," and that he had no mental health problems until he took cold medicine. There is no mention of suicidal ideation that day. Mr. James remained in the Alpha pod for three days. In the evening of July 4, Mr. James began yelling and flooded his cell with water. After he ignored orders to submit to handcuffing from five officers, an officer used a Taser three times to subdue him. [Id.] Throughout the altercation, Mr. James tried to " hit, kick and bite the officers involved," " was combative," and was " out of control." [Id.] Eventually, he was secured to a hospital bed in Alpha pod, E section, checked, released, and rehoused in Alpha pod, B section without any further incident. [Id.] The only defendant involved in this incident was Captain Burnett, who again was required to read the report.

On July 6, while still in Alpha pod, B section, Mr. James said to Officer Mosher--not a defendant[4] --that he " wanted to go suicide." When asked if " he intended to hurt himself, . . . he replied 'I'm for real, I'm super suicidal. I want to cut my throat.'" Mr. James was immediately " handcuffed, escorted to medical and evaluated . . . and placed on suicidal precaution." The only defendant involved in this incident was Captain Forte, who was the commanding officer that day and was required to read the report. Mr. James remained in the suicide prevention section until July 10. His evaluation that day says that he denied suicidal ideation and that he was " doing much better." He was released by medical personnel from the suicide prevention section back to the Charlie Foxtrot section.

No other major incidents occurred during the month of July, though Mr. James was transferred to the Alpha pod again on July 17, and was returned to Charlie Foxtrot on July 24. On August 3, 5, 7, 9, and 31, Mr. James submitted inmate medical request forms saying that he was having difficulty sleeping and felt stressed. It appears that those requests were, as the District Court put it, " largely ignored."

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On August 6, another incident occurred. In the Charlie Foxtrot section, Officer Lavertue and a non-party officer found another inmate (Anthony McBride) " on top of [Mr. James] hitting him with closed fists." Mr. James was seen by a nurse, who " cleared him to remain in the Foxtrot Section." Inmates who witnessed the incident told the officers that " inmate McBride went upstairs to inmate James['s] cell 248 went into his cell and closed the door and started to hit inmate James." Mr. James remained in the Charlie Foxtrot section, but was moved to cell 154, on the lower level.

On August 12, Mr. James requested to be moved from the " special needs" section into the general population. On August 14, a doctor approved this request after noting that he denied any suicidal/homicidal ideation. Mr. James was moved to the Charlie Bravo section. On August 15, however, Mr. James " report[ed] he c[ouldn't] handle [general population]." Although he reported to medical personnel " no SI/HI" (suicidal/homicidal ideation), he " fe[lt] very anxious and like people [were] out to harm him." He was moved back to Charlie Foxtrot that day. Officer Lavertue placed Mr. James in cell 152 on the lower level.

On September 4, Mr. James was involved in an altercation with another inmate, Alvin Rivers. Witnesses said that " inmate Rivers and inmate James had a verbal disagreement over their dinner trays and inmate Rivers struck inmate James on the forehead twice. The witnesses also agreed that inmate James only tried to defend himself and clearly was not the aggresser [sic]." On September 21, Mr. James was involved in a verbal dispute with another inmate, though officers were able to stop it before it turned physical. Mr. James was transferred to the Alpha pod for disciplinary confinement, and remained there until October 2, when he was returned to Charlie Foxtrot. None of the defendants were involved in either of these September incidents.

On October 14, Mr. James committed suicide in cell 254 on the upper level of the Charlie Foxtrot section. The last officer to see Mr. James alive was Officer West--a defendant. He says: " I did observe the decedent on or about 0645 hours on October 14, 2007, during breakfast and he received his breakfast tray. At approximately 07:20, I conducted a headcount and the decedent was alive, awake and accounted for." At around 10:09 a.m., an inmate notified four officers--Captain Burnett, Sergeant Ross, and Officers McEwan and ...


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