Thursday, October 08, 2015

Sheriff Entitled to Qualified Immunity in Personal Capacity in Civil Rights Suit Where Inmate Committed Suicide

Cox v. Glanz, 2015 WL 5210607 (9/8/15) (Okl.) (Published) - The 10th reverses a denial of summary judgment to the sheriff in his individual capacity. The sheriff was in charge of a jail where Mr. Jernigan committed suicide. The 10th rules the sheriff was entitled to qualified immunity because there was no clearly established law in 2009 that required adequate inmate screening for suicide and no one at the jail had knowledge that Mr. Jernigan presented a substantial risk of suicide When Mr. Jernigan entered the jail he denied he was currently thinking about committing suicide. But he did indicate on a questionnaire that he had hallucinations, was paranoid- schiizophrenic, had been nervous or depressed for a few weeks and he was taking medication for an emotional or mental health problem. According to the form, his answers warranted further evaluation. Instead he was simply approved for general population. The next day Mr. Jernigan filed a medical request to "speak with someone about problems." Two days later a health care worker tried to see Mr. Jernigan but didn't contact him because he had been moved to a different cellblock. Within an hour and 25 minutes later, Mr. Jernigan was found hanging from a makeshift noose. The Oklahoma State Department of Health found the jail had violated three jail standards in how they dealt with Mr. Jernigan. In particular, people with mental health problems were supposed to be segregated and watched more carefully than people in general population. Nonetheless, no personal liability. Given the lack of a clearly-established suicide-screening requirement, the 10th says the plaintiff had to show the sheriff's knowledge of a suicide risk with respect to this particular inmate. The 10th noted an exception to this specific-inmate requirement when it came to the risk of sexual victimization. The 10th finds no knowledge of a substantial suicide risk because Mr. Jernigan acted normally during intake. The 10th concedes that perhaps there would have been such knowledge had Mr. Jernigan been more specific about his paranoid-schizophrenic symptoms. But he wasn't forthcoming enough. And Mr. Jernigan's "vague" medical request about needing to speak about "problems" didn't give notice of a substantial suicide risk. Suicide was just one of several possible medical problems. The suit against the sheriff in his official capacity still goes forward because qualified immunity was not available for that status and there was no jurisdiction for an interlocutory appeal on the matter of the sheriff's official-capacity liability.