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McDonald-Witherspoon v. City of Philadelphia

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

August 25, 2017



          O'NEILL, J.

         Plaintiff Michelle McDonald-Witherspoon brings this action on her own behalf and on behalf of her son, who died while in custody at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF). She brings claims against CFCF, the City of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Adult Parole and Probation Department (PAPP), two parole officers, Amber E. Browne and Jeanette Palmer and two private corporations that allegedly contracted with the City to provide mental health services to inmates at CFCF-Corizon Health, Inc. and MHM Services, Inc. All defendants except Corizon and CFCF move to dismiss either in part or in full.[1] I will deny in part and grant in part the motion of defendants City of Philadelphia, Browne and Palmer. I will grant MHM's and PAPP's motions, but I will allow leave to amend some of plaintiff s dismissed claims.


         On June 28, 2016, Kenyada Jones, who was on parole or probation for a DUI charge, met with his parole officer, defendant Browne, and with defendant parole officer Palmer. Compl. ¶ 12. Plaintiff, Jones's mother, was contacted in the course of this meeting, spoke with Browne, and decided to go pick up Jones from the meeting. Id. Plaintiff does not explain what occurred during the gathering, but she states that "by the time she got there, [her son] had already been taken away"-i.e., arrested. Id. She alleges that he was "unlawfully searched, . . . arrested and . . . imprisoned" because he "was mentally disabled and African-American, " the defendants "having animus against [Jones] by reason of what he was." Id. ¶¶ 13, 14.

         Jones suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other similar conditions. The week before his parole meeting, he had admitted himself to a psychiatric hospital, where he had remained for treatment from June 16 until June 22. Id. ¶¶ 9-11.

         After his arrest, plaintiff was incarcerated at CFCF, "a state correctional facility, owned and operated by [the City of Philadelphia]." Id. ¶ 3. On July 2, after four days in prison, Jones was found on the floor of his jail cell, unresponsive and taking slow breaths. Id. ¶ 19. After medical personnel arrived, he was pronounced dead. Id. An autopsy revealed that the cause of death was an excessive intake of Amlodipine, a prescription medication used to control high blood pressure. Id. ¶¶ 20, 21. Jones's stomach had a concentration of Amlodipine at more than eleven times the maximum therapeutic level. Id. ¶ 20. A note in CFCF medical records on Amlodipine states, "no KOP [keep on person]." Id. ¶¶ 18.

         Plaintiff brings this case on behalf of herself and Jones, as the administratrix of his estate. Id. ¶ 1. She alleges defendants[2] "gave misinformation and/or inadequate information to the staff at CFCF regarding [Jones's] mental/psychiatric condition and needs, causing [Jones] to be deprived of needed treatment and medication." Id. ¶ 15. She alleges defendants failed to "place him in a jail cell that was appropriate for his mental state, " failed "to give him needed psychiatric and medical treatment, " and gave him "an entire month to three months' worth of the medication Amlodipine to keep on his person (30 to 90 pills at a time), " despite its known risks. Id. ¶ 18. She contends defendants "acted pursuant to policies, procedures and customs of [d]efendants City of Philadelphia, PAPP and CFCF." Id. ¶ 24.

         Plaintiff initiated litigation in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas on behalf of herself and decedent Jones. The City, Browne and Palmer removed the action to federal court. Thereafter, the City, Browne and Palmer filed a motion to dismiss, Dkt. No. 14; defendant PAPP filed a motion to dismiss, Dkt. No. 15; and defendant MHM filed a partial motion to dismiss, Dkt. No. 13. Plaintiff filed responses to all three motions and defendant PAPP filed a reply.


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) permits a court to dismiss all or part of an action for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Typically, "a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, " though plaintiffs obligation to state the grounds of entitlement to relief "requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). "Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level... on the assumption that all of the allegations in the complaint are true." Id. (citations omitted). This "simply calls for enough fact[s] to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element. Id. at 556. "To prevent dismissal, all civil complaints must set out 'sufficient factual matter' to show that the claim is facially plausible." Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009), quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). The Court also set forth a two part-analysis for reviewing motions to dismiss in light of Twombly and Iqbal:

First, the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated. The District Court must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, but may disregard any legal conclusions. Second, a District Court must then determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a "plausible claim for relief."

Id. at 210-11, quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. The Court explained, "a complaint must do more than allege the plaintiffs entitlement to relief. A complaint has to 'show' such an entitlement with its facts." Id., citing Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234-35 (3d Cir. 2008). "[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not 'show[n]'-'that the pleader is entitled to relief" Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679, quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2).

         When dismissing a case for failure to state a claim in civil rights cases, district courts must offer amendment "unless doing so would be inequitable or futile." Fletcher-Harlee Corp. v. Pote Concrete Contrs., Inc., 482 F.3d 247, 251 (3d Cir. 2007); Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2) ("The court should freely give leave [to amend] when justice so requires.").


         Plaintiffs complaint sets forth the following causes of action on Jones's behalf: (1) federal constitutional claims under the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on behalf of herself and Jones; (2) claims for violations of Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act and § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act on Jones's behalf; and (3) state law claims including violations of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act and the Pennsylvania Constitution, negligence, medical/psychiatric malpractice, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false arrest, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and abuse of process and a claim under the Pennsylvania Wrongful Death and Survival Acts, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 8301 & 8302. The complaint also sets forth claims for both intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress on plaintiffs behalf.

         I will dismiss all of the claims except the § 1983 claim against the City of Philadelphia for violation of Jones's rights. I will, however, allow leave to amend with respect to several of the dismissed claims.

         I. Section 1983 Claims

         A prisoner's right to adequate medical care derives from the Eighth Amendment proscription against cruel and unusual punishment. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 103-105 (1976). In order to set forth a cognizable claim for violation of this right under 28 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must allege facts showing that the defendant was deliberately indifferent to a serious medical need. Id. at 104; Rouse v. Plantier, 182 F.3d 192, 197 (3d Cir. 1999). A prison official is deliberately indifferent if he knows that a prisoner faces a substantial risk of serious harm and fails to take reasonable steps to avoid the harm. Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 837 (1994). The standard requires showing "that the official was subjectively aware of the risk" and that the defendant was more than merely negligent. Id. at 829, 837. Similarly, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment entitles a detainee, rather than a convicted prisoner, "no less a level of medical care than that required for convicted prisoners by the Eighth Amendment." Colburn v. Upper Darby Twp., 838 F.2d 663, 668 (3d Cir. 1988) ("Colburn I"). Custodial officials who "know or should know of the particular vulnerability to suicide of an inmate" have a constitutional obligation "not to act with reckless indifference to that vulnerability." Woloszyn v. Cty of Lawrence, 396 F.3d 314, 319 (3d Cir. 2005), quoting Colburn I, 838 F.2d at 669.

         Plaintiff contends all defendants are liable under § 1983 for their reckless indifference to Jones's vulnerability to suicide.

         A. City of Philadelphia

         Plaintiffs allegations against the City are sufficient to state a claim for violation of Jones's constitutional rights under § 1983.

         In order to recover against a municipality under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege that the City itself caused an injury through the implementation of a policy, practice or custom. Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of NY., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978); Natale v. Camden Cty Corr. Facility, 318 F.3d 575 (3d Cir. 2003). Section 1983 imposes liability on a municipality where, "through its deliberate conduct, the municipality was the 'moving force' behind the injury alleged." Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs of Bryan Cty. v. Brown. 520 U.S. 397, 404 (1997) (emphasis in original). The plaintiff must offer "support that would suggest that [the things that] happened to him . . . were not idiosyncratic actions of individual public actors." Elias v. Twp. of Cheltenham, No. 14-6117, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS, at *9 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 28, 2015) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). Usually, this standard requires showing "a pattern of similar constitutional violations by untrained employees." Thomas v. Cumberland Cnty., 749 F.3d 217, 223 (3d Cir. 2014), quoting Connick v. Thompson, 563 U.S. 51, 52 (2011). But "in certain situations, the need for training can be said to be so obvious, that failure to do so could properly be characterized as deliberate indifference to constitutional rights even without a pattern of constitutional violations." Thomas, 749 F.3d at 223, quoting Bryan Cnty., 520 U.S. at 390 n.10; see also Natale, 318 F.3d at 584.

         For example, in Natale v. Camden County Correctional Facility, a diabetic was not provided the insulin that he needed upon incarceration. Id. The Court of Appeals found that a prison with "no policy ensuring that an inmate having need for medication for a serious medical condition would be given that medication during the first 72 hours of incarceration" was a "particularly glaring omission in a program of medical care" that a jury could conclude was "sufficiently obvious to constitute deliberate indifference to those inmates' medical needs." Id. at 584-85; see also Berg v. Cty. of Allegheny, 219 F.3d 261, 277 (3d Cir. 2000) (holding that a single incident could give rise to Monell liability "where a failure to protect against 'simple mistakes' was likely to lead to constitutional violations").

         With regard to mental health care in prisons, a prison is "deliberately indifferent" where it knows of an inmate's "significant mental health issues but is unprepared to take the steps necessary to address those issues." A.M. ex rel. J.M.K. v. Luzerne Cnty Juvenile Pet. Ctr., 372 F.3d 572, 585 (3d Cir. 2004). In J.M.K. v. Luzerne County Juvenile Detention Center, the plaintiff presented evidence that the detention facility was aware of a child's serious mental health and behavioral problems, which required medication and psychiatric care, but did not consult mental health professionals or refer him for treatment after he misbehaved. Id. at 585. The Center also "had a seriously flawed intake and assessment system, which failed to provide for the sharing and dissemination of critical information about [the child's] mental health history." Id. These and other deficiencies may have led to the child's abuse by other residents. Id. The Court of Appeals held that Monell liability could be predicated on these facts. Id.

         Here, plaintiff alleges the detention facility's awareness of Jones's mental health needs and failure to respond to them, suggesting deliberate indifference on its part. Plaintiff avers that the City failed to diagnose, treat or properly medicate Jones and failed to adequately communicate his medical needs, which led to Jones obtaining a dangerous quantity of a medication that enabled his overdose. Although plaintiffs allegations regarding Jones's care during the four days of his detention at CFCF are somewhat conclusory, she provides two important specifics: first, she describes his extended hospitalization prior to his arrest, from which one could plausibly conclude that Jones's mental health condition was severe and apparent. Second, she provides the circumstances of his death, from which one could plausibly conclude that the City, in its control of CFCF, employed a seriously flawed assessment, treatment or care system. Therefore, at this stage of the litigation, plaintiff has alleged enough facts to open the doors of discovery into the City's policies and practices regarding the care of inmates with mental health issues.

         B. Browne and Palmer

         With respect to Officers Browne and Palmer, however, plaintiff has not pled a claim under § 1983 for violation of Jones' Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights because she does not allege facts that suggest deliberate indifference to his vulnerability to suicide.

[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 officer or officers knew or should have known of that vulnerability, and (3) those officers acted with reckless indifference to the detainee's particular vulnerability.

Woloszyn, 396 F.3d at 319, quoting Colburn v. Upper Darby Twp., 946 F.2d 1017, 1023 (3d Cir. 1991) ("Colburn II").

The detainee's condition must be such that a failure to treat can be expected to lead to substantial and unnecessary suffering, injury, or death. Moreover, the condition must be one that has been diagnosed by a physician as requiring treatment or one that is so obvious that a lay ...

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