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Arenas v. Georgia Department of Corrections

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia

February 20, 2018

MARIA ARENAS, individually and in her capacity as heir and representative of the Estate of Richard Tavara, Plaintiff,
v.
GEORGIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, GEORGIA CORRECTIONAL HEALTH CARE, MARK SHELBY, in his individual capacity, STANLEY WILLIAMS, in his individual capacity, and MARVIN DICKSON, in his individual capacity, Defendants.

          ORDER

          WILLIAM T. MOORE, JR, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF GEORGIA

         Before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. (Doc. 53.) For the following reasons, Defendants' motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. With respect to Plaintiff's claims against Defendant Williams under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Defendants'' motion is GRANTED. Accordingly, Plaintiff's claims for deliberate indifference against Defendant Williams based on having a policy of deliberate indifference to the medical needs of inmates and failing to train his staff are DISMISSED. With respect to Plaintiff's claims under the ADA and RA, Defendants' motion is GRANTED to the extent that these claims are premised on a failure to provide medical treatment. However, the motion is DENIED and Plaintiff's ADA and RA claims remain to the extent that these claims are premised on a failure to provide proper accommodations. With respect to Plaintiff's state law negligence claim brought against Defendant Georgia Department of Corrections, Defendants' motion is GRANTED and these claims are DISMISSED. However, with respect to any negligence claim brought against Defendant Georgia Correctional Health Care for a failure to provide proper medical treatment, Defendants' motion is DENIED.

         BACKGROUND

          This case arises from the incarceration and subsequent death of Richard Tavara.[1] (Doc. 52.) On December 7, 2014, Tavara was incarcerated at Smith State Prison, operated by Defendant Georgia Department of Corrections ("GDOC"). (Id. at ¶¶ 7, 14.) At all relevant times, Defendant Stanley Williams was the warden at Smith State Prison. (Id. at ¶ 6.) At approximately 10:50 pm, Officer John Calhoun saw Tavara attempting to tie around his neck a bed sheet that was attached to a fire extinguisher sprinkler on the ceiling of his cell. (Id. at ¶ 21.) Pursuant to the prison's policy not to enter a prisoner's cell without being accompanied by a supervisor ranked lieutenant or higher, Officer Calhoun did not immediately intervene. (Id. at ¶ 35.) Instead, he notified his supervisors, Defendants Sergeant Mark Shelby and Lieutenant Marvin Dickson, by radio. (Id. at ¶ 22.)

         Defendant Shelby arrived at Tavara's cell eight minutes later and observed Tavara hanging from the fire extinguisher. (Id. at ¶ 26. } Defendant Shelby, however, took no action to intervene. (Id.) Defendant Lieutenant Dickson arrived two minutes later and eventually ordered the officers to open Tavara's cell door. (Id. at ¶¶ 28, 30.) Once inside the cell, Plaintiff contends that the officers actually increased the pressure on Tavara's neck by improperly pulling back on his body instead of lifting him up. (Id. at ¶ 30.) The officers were also unable to immediately relieve pressure from Tavara's neck because they did not have the appropriate tool to quickly cut him down from the ceiling. (Id. at ¶ 31.) In total, nearly fifteen minutes passed from the time that Officer Calhoun witnessed Tavara begin to tie the bed sheet around his neck until someone requested emergency medical assistance. (Id. at ¶ 33.) Tavara was eventually pronounced dead. (Id. at ¶ 14.)

         According to Plaintiff's amended complaint, Tavara suffered from severe mental illnesses and had previously attempted to commit suicide. (Id. at ¶ 15.) Plaintiff contends that all Defendants were aware of Tavara's history of attempted suicides and mental illnesses. (Id.) Despite this awareness, Plaintiff contends that Defendant GDOC, based on an improper recommendation from Defendant Georgia Correctional Health Care i ("GCHC"), did not provide Tavara with appropriate accommodations. (Id. at ¶¶ 39, 40.) Specifically, Plaintiff contends that Defendants GDOC.and GCHC improperly housed Tavara in a solitary cell that had access to a fire extinguisher sprinkler on the ceiling-a known suicide risk. (Id.) Defendant GCHC is an entity that contracts with Defendant GDOC to provide healthcare and psychiatric care to prisoners at Smith State Prison. (Id. at ¶ 8.)

         On November 29, 2016, Tavara's mother, Maria Arenas, brought suit in both her individual capacity and as representative of the Estate of Richard Tavara. (Doc. 1.) In her second amended complaint, Plaintiff bought suit against Defendants Shelby, Dickson, and Williams pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Doc. 52.} Against Defendant Williams, Plaintiff claims that he was deliberately indifferent under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 as he (1) "maintained a policy and practice prohibiting officers from intervening to save inmates' lives without the assistance of their supervisors;" and (2) "failed to train his subordinates that they have a constitutional duty to protect inmates from suicide." (Doc. 52 at ¶¶ 48, 49.) Plaintiff also brought suit against Defendants GDOC and GCHC alleging (1) violations of the American with Disabilities Act ("ADA") and Rehabilitation Act ("RA") as Defendants GDOC and GCHC "failed and refused to reasonably accommodate Tavara's mental disability while in custody" (Id. at ¶ 58); and (2) violations of the Georgia State Tort Claims Act "for negligence and/or intentional misconduct" in the response to Tavara's ongoing suicide attempt. (Id. at ¶ 66.)

         In their motion to dismiss, Defendants contend that Plaintiff has failed to state a claim against Defendant Williams under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based on either the prison's policy not to immediately enter inmates' cells or his alleged failure to train officers to immediately respond to ongoing suicides. Alternatively, Defendants contend that Defendant Williams is entitled to qualified immunity on these claims. Defendants also argue that all claims against Defendants GCHC and GDOC should be dismissed. In respect to claims under the ADA and RA, Defendants contend these claims should be dismissed because (1) Plaintiff has failed to show that Tavara was discriminated against because of his disability; (2) the ADA and the RA do not provide causes of actions for lack of treatment; and (3) both Defendants GCHC and GDOC are entitled to immunity on these claims. With respect to Plaintiff's state law tort claims, Defendants argue that these claims should be dismissed because Defendants GCHC and GDOC are also entitled to sovereign immunity on these claims and Plaintiff failed to provide a sufficient notice of these claims as required by state law.

         ANALYSIS

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) (2) requires a complaint to contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." "[T]he pleading standard Rule 8 announces does not require 'detailed factual allegations, ' but it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). "A pleading that offers 'labels and conclusions' or a 'formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.' " Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555) . "Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders 'naked assertion[s] ' devoid of ''further factual enhancement.' " Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557) (alteration in original).

         "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.' " Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). For a claim to have facial plausibility, the plaintiff must plead factual content that "allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Sinaltrainal v.

         Coca-Cola Co., 578 F.3d 1252, 1261 (11th Cir. 2009) (quotations omitted) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). Plausibility does not require probability, "but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. "Where a complaint pleads facts that are ''merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, it ''stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.' " Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557). Additionally, a complaint is sufficient only if it gives "fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Sinaltrainal, 578 F.3d at 1268 (quotations omitted) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

         When the Court considers a motion to dismiss, it accepts the well-pleaded facts in the complaint as true. Sinaltrainal, 578. F.3d 1252 at 1260. However, this Court is "not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Moreover, "unwarranted deductions of fact in a complaint are not admitted as true for the purpose of testing the sufficiency of [plaintiff's] allegations." Sinaltrainal, 578 F.3d at 1268 (citing Aldana v. Del Monte Fresh Produce, N.A., Inc., 416 F.3d 1242, 1248 (11th Cir. 2005)). That is, "[t]he rule 'does not impose a probability requirement at the pleading stage, ' but instead simply calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element." Watts v. Fla . Int'l Univ., 495 F.3d 1289, 1295-96 (11th Cir. 2007) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 545).

          II. DELIBERATE INDIFFERENCE CLAIMS AGAINST DEFENDANT WILLIAMS

          In her second amended complaint, Plaintiff brought suit against Defendant Williams pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Williams was deliberately indifferent to Tavara's constitutional rights because he "maintained a practice of prohibiting officers from intervening to save inmates' lives without the assistance of their supervisors." (Doc 52, ¶ 48.) In addition, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Williams "failed to train his subordinates that they have a constitutional duty to protect inmates from suicide, that officers must respond adequately to a suicide attempt . . . and are required to provide iimely medical attention to inmates seen committing suicide." (Id. at ¶ 49.) In response, Defendants contend that Plaintiff has failed to state a claim against Defendant Williams based on his failure to train his staff or the prison's policy not to enter cells while unaccompanied. Alternatively, Defendants argue that Defendant Williams is entitled to qualified immunity on both claims.

         A. Failure to Train

         Defendants first contend that Plaintiff has failed to state a claim that Defendant Williams was deliberately indifferent when he "unconstitutionally trained his subordinates ... to delay providing emergency medical care to prisoners engaged in suicide." (Doc. 58 at 12.) Defendants contend that this claim fails because Plaintiff has provided no factual allegations in her complaint that Defendant Williams was on notice of the alleged inadequate training. After careful review, the Court agrees.

         Typically, "[a] pattern of similar constitutional violations by untrained employees is 'ordinarily necessary' to demonstrate deliberate indifference for purposes of failure to train." Connick v. Thompson, 563 U.S. 51, 62 (2011) (quoting Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs of Bryan Cty., Okl. v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 409 (1997)). In this case, Plaintiff has not alleged any prior instances of an attempted suicide at the prison. As a result, there is no indication in the complaint that Defendant Williams was on notice that officers working in Smith State Prison were improperly trained to provide a delayed response to an ongoing suicide.

         Plaintiff, however, alleges that the need for training was so obvious in this case that an allegation of prior similar incidents is unnecessary. It is true that the Supreme Court of the United States left open the possibility that a situation could exist where the likelihood of a constitutional violation was so apparent that liability for a failure-to-train claim could attach on the basis of a single violation. City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 388 (1989) . In Canton, the Supreme Court hypothesized that there would be an obvious need for training if a police force was provided with deadly weapons without first being trained as to potential constitutional violations resulting from the use of deadly force. Id. at 390 n.10. In this hypothetical situation, the Supreme Court concluded that a plaintiff would have no need to allege any prior acts before bringing a failure-to-train claim. Id.

         In this case, Plaintiff is challenging Defendant Williams's training of officers to delay entering cells in order to respond to an ongoing suicide. Plaintiff's failure-to-train claim is fundamentally different than the hypothesized failure-to-train claim in Canton. The Supreme Court's hypothetical in Canton involved a lack of training despite a high likelihood of a constitutional violation. Id. In this case, training was provided, but Plaintiff is challenging the adequacy of that training. In this Court's view, it is not apparent that Defendant Williams's policy to delay entering a cell while unaccompanied would necessarily lead to a constitutional violation. With no allegations of prior incidents where the officers caused harm to an inmate attempting to commit suicide, the Court finds that Defendant Williams could not have been on notice that his training of officers to delay entering cells would likely lead to a constitutional violation.

         Moreover, courts have been hesitant to employ the narrow exception created in Canton, gee Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 409 (1997) (noting that the Canton Court "simply hypothesized that, in a narrow range of circumstances, a violation of federal rights may be a highly predictable consequence of a failure to equip law enforcement officers with specific tools to handle recurring situations"); see also Young v. City of Augusta, Ga. ex rel. DeVaney, 59 F.3d 1160, 1171 (11th Cir. 1995) (finding that there was not an obvious need to train jail officials "to recognize the need to remove a mentally ill inmate to a hospital or to dispense medication as prescribed"). Because courts have been hesitant to uphold a failure-to-train claim based on single incident violations, this Court is also hesitant to find that Defendant Williams could have been deliberately different to Tavara's constitutional rights without any allegations of prior similar incidents. Without any indication that Defendant ...


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