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Ferencz v. Medlock

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 8, 2014

SHANNON FERENCZ, Administratrix of the Estate of Cade Stevens, Plaintiff,
v.
LARRY MEDLOCK, BRIAN MILLER, GEARY O'NEIL, BARRY SIMON, JOHN DOE ##1, 2, 3 AND 4, PRIMECARE MEDICAL, INC., LOUIS KRUKOWSKY, and FAYETTE COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

TERRENCE F. McVERRY, District Judge.

Pending before the Court are Objections filed by all parties (ECF Nos. 123, 124, 125 and 126) to the Report and Recommendation ("R&R") issued on May 15, 2014 by Chief Magistrate Judge Lisa P. Lenihan (ECF No. 120), which addressed the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. Plaintiff has filed responses in opposition to the Objections filed by Defendants. The Objections are ripe for disposition. The standard of review is de novo.

Factual and Procedural Background

This case arises from a tragic situation, namely, the suicide death of Cade Stevens, a pretrial detainee at the Fayette County Prison on September 12, 2009. The R&R has thoroughly set forth the factual record, including disputed matters, and that recitation is adopted herein.

Plaintiff Shannon Ferencz is the decedent's mother and the administratrix of his estate. Named as Defendants are Larry Medlock, the now-retired warden of Fayette County Prison; Brian Miller, the Deputy Warden in 2009; Corrections Officers Geary O'Neil and Barry Simon; Louis Krukowsky, a counselor at the prison; Fayette County; PrimeCare Medical Incorporated ("Primecare"), which was contracted by Fayette County to provide medical care to inmates; and Primecare nurse-employees Carol Younkin and Timmee Burnsworth. The Second Amended Complaint asserts the following claims: Count I encompasses multiple civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for deliberate indifference to the serious health needs of Stevens[1]; Count II is a survival action under Pennsylvania state law; and Count III is a wrongful death action under Pennsylvania state law. On October 17, 2012, Chief Magistrate Judge Lenihan held that the claims against nurses Younkin and Burnsworth were untimely and dismissed each of them as parties to this case. On May 28, 2014, the "John Doe" Defendants were also dismissed from this case.

To briefly summarize, when viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the record reflects a series of events by which Stevens' death could allegedly have been prevented. At 8:30 a.m. on September 11, Nurse Younkin performed an initial interview and assessed Stevens as a "12" on the Intake Suicide Screening form. It is undisputed that according to prison and Primecare policy (and the face of the form itself), if the total screening score is 8 or more, the inmate must be placed on a suicide watch, which would trigger robust precautionary measures. The intake nurse does not have discretion to not place such an inmate on suicide watch. Only a psychiatrist would have had authority to not place or remove an inmate from suicide watch. CSMF ¶ 35. Nevertheless, despite having knowledge of this policy, Nurse Younkin did not place Stevens on suicide watch.[2] Instead, Nurse Younkin placed Stevens on a less-stringent drug withdrawal watch and arranged with Dr. Delio to begin a heroin withdrawal treatment protocol.

At 12:30 p.m. that day, Nurse Younkin met with counselor Krukowsky and Deputy Warden Miller as members of the Inmate Classification Committee ("ICC") to determine where Stevens should be housed. The ICC would not have met if Stevens had been classified as suicidal in the initial screening by Younkin because he would have automatically been put on suicide watch. Nurse Younkin did not inform Krukowsky or Miller of Stevens' Intake Suicide Screening score. Stevens was assigned to Cell B-1 on B-Range, with no cell mate assigned. The cell was equipped with a video surveillance camera in service.

Younkin administered the first two doses of Stevens' heroin withdrawal medication. A factfinder could determine that Primecare Nurse Sabatula did not give Stevens his prescribed dose of the appropriate medication at bedtime that evening.[3] It is undisputed that Primecare Nurse Burnsworth did fail to administer the withdrawal medication to Stevens at 8:00 a.m. the next morning.[4]

The "movement sheet" which would have conveyed the enhanced observation needs regarding Stevens was apparently not fully distributed throughout the institution. Shift commander Mauro, control room officer Strickler, assigned floor officer Simon, and roving relief officer O'Neil all testified that they were not notified that Stevens had been placed on any type of special (suicide or drug withdrawal) watch. Although counselor Krukowsky was the person who usually distributed the movement sheet, it is unclear who was responsible for this task and apparently there was not a policy which ensured that such watch information was fully communicated to all necessary personnel.

Officer O'Neil had some limited, unremarkable interactions with Stevens during his regular shift on Friday, September 11. Officer Simon began his shift at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, September 12. Simon testified that he did a head count upon commencement of his shift, and again visually observed Stevens at approximately 8:35-8:40 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. Officer Simon testified that at approximately 9:30 a.m., he could see Stevens continuing to lay on his bunk. At 9:32 a.m. (based on the video time stamp), Stevens began pacing and tied his bed sheet to the bars of his cell. At 9:33 a.m., Officer Simon left his chair and walked toward the control room area off-camera.[5] From 9:33 until 9:41 a.m., no officer was visibly on duty at the work station, which was located approximately 20 feet from Stevens' cell. At 9:34 a.m., Stevens tied the other end of the sheet around his neck and attempted to hang himself. After a few minutes, he climbed back down and laid back on his bunk. The sheet remained tied to the bars. From 9:37-9:39, Stevens made another suicide attempt. At 9:40 a.m., Stevens again tied the sheet around his neck. At 9:41 a.m., Officer Simon reappeared briefly and Officer O'Neil (assigned as a rover that day) appeared on camera to relieve Simon for a 15-minute break.[6] A jury could find that O'Neil propped his feet up on a chair and took a nap for the next 24 minutes.[7] At 9:41, Stevens hanged himself again. At 9:43, his body stopped moving. At 10:05 a.m., Officers Yatsko and Isler entered the work area; Yatsko saw Stevens on the monitor and alerted the control room; and the officers went into Stevens' cell and were unsuccessful in their attempt to resuscitate him.

All parties moved for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 73, 75, 78, 82). The R&R of Magistrate Judge Lenihan recommended that: (1) the summary judgment motion filed by Fayette County, counselor Krukowsky, Warden Medlock and Assistant Warden Miller be granted as to Counts 2 and 3 (Pennsylvania Wrongful Death and Survival claims) based on immunity under the Pennsylvania Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, and denied in all other respects; (2) the motion for summary judgment filed by Primecare be granted in part and denied in part as to Counts 2 and 3 because Nurse Younkin's actions constituted "professional negligence" while the actions of Nurse Sabatula and Nurse Burnsworth constituted "ordinary negligence, " and denied as to Count 1; (3) the summary judgment motion filed by Officers O'Neil and Simon be granted as to Counts 2 and 3 based on immunity under the Pennsylvania Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, and denied in all other respects; and (4) Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment be denied. The instant Objections followed.

Legal Analysis

The Court appreciates the diligent and comprehensive efforts of the Magistrate Judge in this difficult case. The Court writes separately to explain its different conclusions on some of the dispositive legal issues and to provide further guidance for the remaining parties as to the issues to be determined at trial.

The Magistrate Judge correctly articulated the legal principles which govern prison suicide cases in the Third Circuit. Plaintiff's § 1983 claim is grounded in the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, as incorporated into the Fourteenth Amendment. A plaintiff in a prison suicide case has the burden of establishing three elements: (1) the detainee had a "particular vulnerability to suicide, " (2) the custodial officers knew or should have known of that vulnerability, and (3) those officers "acted with reckless ...


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