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Alexander v. Monroe County

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

January 6, 2017

DEBRA L. ALEXANDER, adoptive parent and Administratrix of the Estate of Scott Alonzo Alexander Plaintiff,
MONROE COUNTY, et al., Defendants.


         Before the Court are objections by Plaintiff to a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) issued by United States Magistrate Judge Joseph F. Saporito, Jr. For the reasons which follow, the Court will adopt, in part, and deny, in part, the R&R.

         I. Background

         On June 25, 2013, Plaintiff initiated this action by filing a Complaint, alleging violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Pennsylvania state law. (Doc. 1). Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint on September 13, 2013 (Doc. 17), and then subsequently filed a Second Amended Complaint, which is the operative complaint, on November 5, 2013 (Doc. 37). Plaintiff's claims stem from circumstances surrounding the suicide of decedent, Scott Alonzo Alexander, on July 21, 2011, while incarcerated at the Monroe County Correctional Facility.

         On July 25, 2014, the Court dismissed all but Plaintiff's Eighth Amendment and state-law claims. (Docs. 65 and 66). After the parties had an opportunity to conduct discovery, Defendants filed motions for summary judgment on the remaining claims. (Docs. 99, 106, 109, and 112). Magistrate Judge Joseph F. Saporito, Jr. issued a R&R (Doc. 126), recommending granting Defendants' motions for summary judgment. Plaintiff has filed objections to the R&R (Doc. 127). Defendants have filed briefs in opposition to Plaintiff's objections. (Docs. 130, 131, 132, and 133).

         II. Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is appropriate when “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). An issue is “genuine” if there is sufficient evidence with which a reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); Childers v. Joseph, 842 F.2d 689, 693-94 (3d Cir. 1988) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248). A factual dispute is “material” if it might affect the outcome of the case. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. In determining whether an issue of material fact exists, the court must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Skerski v. Time Warner Cable Co., 257 F.3d 273, 278 (3d Cir. 2001); White v. Westinghouse Elec, Co., 862 F.2d 56, 59 (3d Cir. 1988).

         A party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial burden of informing the court of the basis of its motion and identifying those portions of the record that it believes demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). “If the moving party carries this initial burden, ” then the nonmoving party “must come forward with specific facts, ” rather than “some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, ” that counter the moving party's arguments and show “that there is a genuine issue for trial.” United States v. Donovan, 661 F.3d 174, 185 (3d Cir. 2011); see also Deitrick v. Costa, 2015 WL 1605700, at *4 (M.D. Pa. Apr. 9, 2015) (“More simply put a party moving for summary judgment who does not bear the burden of persuasion at trial is not required to negate the nonmovant's claim, but only point out a lack of evidence sufficient to support the nonmovant's claim.”). The non-moving party has the burden to “come forth with ‘affirmative evidence, beyond the allegations of the pleadings, ' in support of its right to relief.” U.S. Bank, Nat'l Ass'n v. Greenfield, Civ. No. 1:12-CV-2125, 2014 WL 3908127, at *2 (M.D. Pa. Aug. 11, 2014) (quoting Pappas v. City of Lebanon, 331 F.Supp.2d 311, 315 (M.D. Pa. 2004)). “If a party fails to properly support an assertion of fact or fails to properly address another party's assertion of fact as required by Rule 56(c), ” a court may grant summary judgment or consider the fact undisputed for purposes of the motion. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)(2-3).

         Further, when objections are filed to a R&R of a Magistrate Judge, we must make a de novo determination of those portions of the report to which objections are made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); see also Sample v. Diecks, 885 F.2d 1099, 1106 n.3 (3d Cir. 1989). In doing so, we may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the Magistrate Judge. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Local Rule 72.31. Although our review is de novo, we are permitted to rely upon the Magistrate Judge's proposed recommendations to the extent we, in the exercise of sound discretion, deem proper. See United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 676 (1980); see also Goney v. Clark, 749 F.2d 5, 7 (3d Cir. 1984). For the portions not objected to, the usual practice of the district court is to give “reasoned consideration” to a magistrate judge's report prior to adopting it. Henderson v. Carlson, 812 F.2d 874, 878 (3d Cir. 1987).

         III. Discussion

         In the R&R, the Magistrate Judge recommended that Defendants' motions for summary judgment be granted. Specifically, the Magistrate Judge recommended that the following claims be dismissed: (1) claims against Deborah Wilson, D.O. and Wendy Johnson, L.P.N., for waiver of claims against these two Defendants; (2) § 1983 claims against Dr. Thomas and Doctor Dedania because no reasonable jury could find that either doctors' treatment decisions were recklessly indifferent to Scott Alexander's vulnerability to suicide; (3) § 1983 claim against Officer Landon because Plaintiff failed to satisfy her burden of citing particular potential admissible evidence in the record to demonstrate the existence of a genuine dispute of material fact; (4) § 1983 claims against Monroe County because there was insufficient evidence to permit a reasonable jury to find that the County and its governing officials had actual or constructive knowledge of the purported policy deficiencies and that Plaintiff failed to establish an underlying deprivation of a constitutionally protected right with respect to Officer Landon and the medical defendants; (5) § 1983 claims against Warden Asure because Plaintiff failed to identify any evidence to suggest that the Warden personally participated in any of the purported misconduct or evidence that the existing suicide-prevention policy created an unreasonable risk of the Eighth Amendment injury; (6) § 1983 claims against PrimeCare for the same reasons set forth in the claims against the County; and (7) state law negligence claims against Dr. Dedania, Dr. Thomas, and PrimeCare for Plaintiff's failure to support her state-law medical negligence claims by a qualified physician to opine to the standard-of-care under the Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error Act (“MCARE”), 2002 Pa. Laws. 13 (codified in relevant part at 40 P.S. § 1303.512).

         Plaintiff's Objections

         As an initial matter, the Court notes that Plaintiff does not raise any objections to the R&R dismissing Defendants Deborah Wilson, D.O. and Wendy Johnson, L.P.N. As such, we have given reasoned consideration to this portion of the Magistrate Judge's R&R and will adopt his recommendation and grant summary judgment in favor of Defendants Deborah Wilson, D.O. and Wendy Johnson, L.P.N.

         Plaintiff makes several objections to the Magistrate Judge's R&R as it relates to the remaining Defendants based upon § 1983 / Eighth Amendment claims. Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code offers private citizens a cause of action for violations of federal law by state officials. See 42 U.S.C. § 1983; Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273, 284-85 (2002). To state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege “the violation of a right secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States, and must show that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law.” West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988). Section 1983 “provides a remedy for deprivations of rights established elsewhere in the Constitution or federal laws, ” and is not an independent source of substantive rights. Estate of Smith v. Marasco, 318 F.3d 497, 505 (3d Cir. 2003).

         Deliberate Indifference to a Medical Need / Reckless Indifference to Risk of Suicide

         Plaintiff contends that Defendants were deliberately indifferent to Scott Alexander's vulnerability to suicide and that the Magistrate Judge misapplied the standard for granting summary judgment and invaded the province of the jury. Specifically, Plaintiff contends that Defendants violated Scott Alexander's constitutional rights by failing to provide adequate suicide prevention measures, and in particular, failing to place him on suicide watch. Deliberate indifference is analyzed under a two prong test. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 102 (1976). “First, plaintiff must make an ‘objective' showing that the deprivation was ‘sufficiently serious, ' or that the result of defendant's denial was sufficiently serious. Additionally, the plaintiff must make a ‘subjective' showing that defendant acted with ‘a sufficiently culpable state of mind.' ” Montgomery v. Pinchak, 294 F.3d 492, 499 (3d Cir. 2002) (citing Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 298 (1991)).

         Under the first prong of the deliberate indifference test, a medical need is “serious” if it is “one that has been diagnosed by a physician as requiring treatment or one that is so obvious that a lay person would easily recognize the necessity for a doctor's attention.” Atkinson v. Taylor, 316 F.3d 257, 272-73 (3d Cir. 2003). The Third Circuit has recognized that a “particular vulnerability to suicide” could represent a “serious medical need.” See Colburn v. Upper Darby Twp., 838 F.2d 663, 669 (3d Cir. 1988). Thus, the contours of the right and action in prison suicide cases have established the burden upon the plaintiff to prove the following three elements: (1) the detainee had a particular vulnerability to suicide, (2) the custodial officer or officers knew ... of that vulnerability, and (3) those officers acted with reckless indifference to the detainee's particular vulnerability.” Colburn v. Upper Darby Twp., 946 F.2d 1017, 1023 (3d Cir. 1991) (internal quotations omitted); see Farmer, 511 U.S. 825 (clarifying the culpability requirement to require actual awareness of the risk).

         To create liability, “the risk of self-inflicted injury must not only be great, but also sufficiently apparent that a lay custodian's failure to appreciate it evidences an absence of any concern for the welfare of his or her charges.” Woloszyn v. Cnty. of Lawrence, 396 F.3d 314, 320 (3d Cir. 2005). “Liability cannot lie for negligence; the risk of self-inflicted harm must be obvious. The burden for proving liability in a prison suicide case is a difficult one to meet, since ‘a prison custodian is not the guarantor of a prisoner's safety. We cannot infer from the prisoner's act of suicide itself that the prison officials were recklessly indifferent in their obligation to ... take reasonable precautions to protect the safety of prisoners entrusted in their care.” Wargo v. Schuylkill Cnty., Civ. No. 06-2156, 2008 WL 4922471, at *5 (M.D. Pa. Nov. 14, 2008) (citing Freedman v. City of Allentown, 853 F.2d 1111, 1115 (3d Cir. 1988)).

         Finally, because a culpable state of mind is required to find deliberate indifference, “mere medical malpractice cannot give rise to a violation of the Eighth Amendment.” White v. Napoleon, 897 F.2d 103, 108-09 (3d Cir. 1990); see also United States ex rel. Walker v. Fayette Cnty., 599 F.2d 573, 575 n. 2 (3d Cir. 1979) (“Where a prisoner has received some medical attention and the dispute is over the adequacy of the treatment, federal courts are generally reluctant to second guess medical judgments and to constitutionalize claims which sound in state tort law.”). Thus, “as long as a physician exercises professional judgment his behavior will not violate a prisoner's constitutional rights.” Brown v. Borough of Chambersburg, 903 F.2d 274, 278 (3d Cir. 1990).

         With the above tenants in mind, we now turn to each of Plaintiff's objections to the Magistrate Judge's R&R as they relate to each remaining defendant.

         a. ...

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