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Nealman v. Maben

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 30, 2019

TAWNA Z. NEALMAN, as the Personal Representative of the Estate of Benjamin Shelley Nealman, Plaintiff



         Plaintiff Tawna Z. Nealman commenced this civil rights action on behalf of the estate of her late husband, Benjamin Shelley Nealman. Plaintiff asserts various constitutional and state-law claims against several employees of the Mifflin County Correctional Facility arising from Nealman’s suicide during his detention in August 2013. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment as to all claims and parties remaining.

         I. Factual Background & Procedural History [1]

         The material facts underlying this litigation are largely undisputed. On August 13, 2013, at around 2:00 p.m., Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Ryan Laughlin (“Trooper Laughlin”) was dispatched to Impressions Printings Company, a business located in Mifflintown, Pennsylvania, for reports of a possible shooting. (Doc. 84 ¶ 1; Doc. 94 ¶ 1). On arrival, Trooper Laughlin observed plaintiffs late husband, Benjamin Shelley Nealman (“Nealman”), “lying on the floor behind a desk in the back of the office, clenching a stun gun and a pair of brass knuckles.”[2](Doc. 84 ¶ 2; Doc. 94 ¶ 2). Nealman was confused, sweating, and breathing heavily, and he claimed that someone had attempted to shoot him from across the river, that his stun gun had been shot, and that he had been shot in the back. (Doc. 84 ¶¶ 3-5; Doc. 94 ¶¶ 3-5). Trooper Laughlin observed no gunshot wounds and concluded that Nealman was “simply delusional.” (Doc. 84 ¶¶ 4, 6; Doc. 94 ¶¶ 4, 6). Nealman told Trooper Laughlin that he had ingested bath salts, Vicodin, and No-Doz pills earlier that day. (Doc. 84 ¶ 7; Doc. 94 ¶ 7).

         Trooper Laughlin arrested Nealman on charges of use or possession of drug paraphernalia, possession of an offensive weapon, and disorderly conduct, (Doc. 84 ¶ 8; Doc. 94 ¶ 8; see Doc. 84-25 at 2-3), and transported him first to the state police barracks and then to a magisterial district court for arraignment, (Doc. 84 ¶¶ 9, 12; Doc. 94 ¶¶ 9, 12). After Nealman was arraigned, Trooper Laughlin transported him to Mifflin County Correctional Facility (“MCCF”). (Doc. 84 ¶ 14; Doc. 94 ¶ 14). Nealman was quiet during the transports and did not exhibit any unusual behavior or make any statements suggesting an intent to harm himself or others. (Doc. 84 ¶¶ 10-11, 13, 15).[3] Trooper Laughlin testified that he had no concerns that Nealman was at risk of harming himself or others when he dropped Nealman off at MCCF. (See Laughlin Dep. 58:11-19, 63:7-19).

         The intake procedure at MCCF consists of two phases: booking and classification. (Doc. 84 ¶ 17; Doc. 94 ¶ 17). Booking is the “initial screening and observation of each new commitment and occurs at or near the time of intake.” (Doc. 84 ¶ 18; Doc. 94 ¶ 18). The classification phase follows and may take up to 14 days to complete. (Doc. 84 ¶ 18; Doc. 94 ¶ 18). Classification produces the ultimate inmate housing assignment after review and approval by medical, counseling, and security staff. (Doc. 84 ¶ 18; Doc. 94 ¶ 18). The first steps upon arrival of a new commitment are for the booking officer to verify the identity of the transporting officer and the detainee and to examine all legal documents accompanying the detainee “to insure they meet proper standards.” (Doc. 86-3 at 1).

         During the intake process, prison officials must complete a number of screening forms, including a Classification Checklist/Reception Checklist (the “Reception Checklist”), Initial Receiving Screening Form, Physical Examination Form, and Suicide Screening Questionnaire. (Doc. 84 ¶ 19; Doc. 94 ¶ 19). Officials must also input certain data into the facility’s computerized offender management system. (See Doc. 84 ¶ 19; Doc. 94 ¶ 19). MCCF policy states that officers must assess the detainee based on “personal observations and information reported by the arresting officer or the transporting authority.” (Doc. 86-6). MCCF staff testified that, in practice, they rely “predominately” on their own observations to “gauge the demeanor of the inmate.” (Doc. 86-16, Snook Dep. 32:2-33:2; Doc. 86-17, Kearns Dep. 24:6-27:2; see also Doc. 86-14, Maben Dep. 61:22-63:9).

         Correctional officer Robert Maben (“Maben”) was the booking officer on duty when Nealman arrived at MCCF. (Doc. 84 ¶ 26; Doc. 85 ¶ 5; Doc. 92 ¶ 5; Doc. 94 ¶ 26). Lieutenant Michelle K. Huffman (“Huffman”), formerly known as Michelle K. Weaver, was the shift supervisor. (Doc. 84 ¶ 27; Doc. 86 ¶ 6; Doc. 92 ¶ 6; Doc. 94 ¶ 27). Maben completed the first ten questions on Nealman’s Reception Checklist immediately upon intake. (Doc. 84 ¶¶ 28, 37; Doc. 94 ¶¶ 28, 37). Nealman’s completed Reception Checklist is reproduced below:

         (Image Omitted)

(Doc. 86-7). As the form reflects, Maben checked “no” for “signs of possible mental disturbance” and “signs of possible suicide.” (Id.) Maben checked “yes” for “skin in poor condition” and “signs of possible intoxication.” (Id.) In a section titled “Observation concerning the inmate during reception processing, ” Maben wrote “open sores on face, took bath salts last at 2:30 (app) on 8-13-13.” (Id.) Maben testified that, other than these observations, he did not recall anything “out of the ordinary” as to Nealman’s booking. (Doc. 84 ¶ 34; Maben Dep. 101:18-102:1).

         The bottom section of the Reception Checklist form states: “If yes is answered to the following questions, make immediate referral as indicated.” (Doc. 86-7). The form then assigns a department to each of the 13 enumerated questions. For example, “yes” answers to questions 1 through 6 are referred to the medical department, and “yes” answers for questions 7 through 11 must be referred to a psychiatrist or counselor. (Id.) MCCF staff explained that an “immediate referral” requires the detainee to be seen by the assigned department within 14 days of admission. (Doc. 84 ¶ 24). The parties dispute whether immediate referral is mandated for any “yes” answer, as the form’s language suggests, or only when, in a supervisor’s discretion, it appears that the detainee is in immediate need of a mental health evaluation. (See Doc. 84 ¶¶ 23-25; Doc. 86 ¶¶ 55-65; Doc. 92 ¶¶ 55-65; Doc. 94 ¶¶ 23-25).

         Intake booking officers often complete the initial booking steps-such as searches, showers, and the first ten questions of the Reception Checklist-and leave the remaining steps to be completed by an officer on a later shift. (See Maben Dep. 12:21-13-8; see also Doc. 84 ¶ 21; Doc. 94 ¶ 21). Maben testified that he followed this procedure in Nealman’s case because MCCF was “extremely busy” that night.[4](See Maben Dep. 13:2; Doc. 84 ¶ 37; see also Doc. 86 ¶ 41; Doc. 92 ¶ 41; Doc. 94 ¶ 37). After Maben completed the first part of the Reception Checklist, he placed Nealman in a holding cell in the booking area overnight. (See Doc. 84 ¶ 38; Doc. 94 ¶ 38). Maben issued a spork, knife, two bedsheets, and a pillowcase to Nealman. (Doc. 86 ¶ 48; Doc. 92 ¶ 48).

         Correctional officer Christian Z. Snook (“Snook”) completed the booking process with Nealman on the morning of August 14, 2013. (Doc. 84 ¶ 40; Doc. 94 ¶ 40). While completing the Initial Receiving Screening Form, Nealman disclosed (and Snook documented) that he had ingested bath salts the day before and had attempted suicide 13 years prior. (Doc. 84 ¶¶ 42-43; Doc. 94 ¶¶ 42-43; see Doc. 84-5). Snook noted that Nealman was cooperative, relaxed, and denied that he was currently suicidal. (Doc. 84 ¶ 44; Doc. 94 ¶ 44; see Doc. 84-5).

         Snook also completed a Suicide Screening Questionnaire with Nealman. (Doc. 84 ¶ 45; Doc. 94 ¶ 45; see Doc. 84-7). The questionnaire includes 18 “yes or no” prompts with space for comments. (Doc. 84-7). Nealman’s questionnaire appears below:

         (Image Omitted)

(Id.) Snook checked “yes” for both “psychiatric history” and “previous suicide attempt > 3 months ago” based on Nealman’s disclosure of an attempted suicide by overdose in 2000. (Id.) While completing the questionnaire, Nealman told Snook that he and his wife were separated. (Doc. 84 ¶ 46; Doc. 94 ¶ 46). Snook indicated that Nealman was not worried about major life problems other than his criminal case; that he did not show signs of depression or appear anxious, afraid, or angry; and that he did not express feelings of despondency. (See Doc. 84-7). Snook noted that Nealman again denied current suicidality. (Doc. 84 ¶ 49; Doc. 84-7).

         Snook observed that Nealman “was compliant, generally clean, [and] spoke well” and that “nothing really sticks out in my mind when I processed him that would have caused any concern or would have been anything out of the ordinary.” (Doc. 84 ¶ 40). Based on the questionnaire, Nealman was determined to be a “low risk of suicide” and cleared for general population with routine medical and counseling referrals. (Doc. 84 ¶¶ 50-53; Doc. 94 ¶¶ 50-53). During booking, Snook explained to Nealman the process for obtaining healthcare services at MCCF if Nealman wished to do so. (Doc. 84 ¶ 54; Doc. 94 ¶ 54). Lieutenant Barry Kearns (“Kearns”), Snook’s shift supervisor, reviewed the forms completed by Snook and approved Nealman’s placement in general population pending routine medical and mental health reviews. (Doc. 84 ¶¶ 41, 55; Doc. 94 ¶¶ 41, 55). Neither Snook nor Kearns made “immediate referrals” based on the two “yes” answers (concerning skin condition and intoxication) on Nealman’s reception checklist. (See Snook Dep. 119:18-120:9).

         Tiffanie Wert (“Wert”), a registered nurse at MCCF, met with Nealman next for a medical review. (Doc. 84 ¶ 56; Doc. 94 ¶ 56; see Doc. 84-6). Wert examined Nealman and agreed with the recommendation to place him in general population. (Doc. 84 ¶ 56; Doc. 94 ¶ 56). Wert reviewed the booking paperwork, including the Reception Checklist and the Initial Receiving Screening Form, and discussed Nealman’s drug use and prior suicide attempt with him. (Doc. 84 ¶¶ 58-59; Doc. 94 ¶¶ 58-59). Nealman disclosed that he had consumed bath salts the day before and had attempted suicide by overdose in 2000. (Doc. 84 ¶¶ 60-61; Doc. 94 ¶¶ 60-61). Wert did not observe signs of hallucination, shaking, or any other symptoms of mental illness during the examination. (Doc. 84 ¶ 62; Doc. 94 ¶ 62). Nealman expressly denied that he was currently suicidal when questioned by Wert, (Doc. 84 ¶ 63; Doc. 94 ¶ 63), and Wert testified that she had no concern that Nealman was a danger to himself or others based on the examination. (Doc. 84 ¶ 64; Doc. 94 ¶ 64).

         Nealman was placed in “E-Block, ” the special needs housing unit, pending completion of a mental health examination and final classification. (Doc. 84 ¶¶ 66-67; Doc. 94 ¶¶ 66-67; Snook Dep. 54:12-55:4, 76:21-77:16). On August 15, 2013, two days after his arrest, Nealman called his mother. (See Doc. 84 ¶ 73; Doc. 94 ¶ 73). Nealman’s mother testified that Nealman was “lucid” and “sober” during the call but that he “didn’t sound right” and seemed “down.” (Doc. 84 ¶ 74; Doc. 94 ¶ 74). On August 16, 2013, Nealman called Colello Bail Bonds at approximately 9:30 a.m. and again at approximately 11:35 a.m. (Doc. 84 ¶¶ 75-76; Doc. 94 ¶¶ 75-76). The bondsman informed Nealman during the second call that he was unable to post Nealman’s bail. (Doc. 84 ¶ 77; Doc. ¶ 77).

         At 12:23 p.m., surveillance footage shows Nealman entering his cell. (Doc. 84 ¶ 79; Doc. 94 ¶ 79). At 12:37 p.m., correctional officer James M. Lewis (“Lewis”) discovered Nealman hanging by a bedsheet in his cell. (Doc. 84 ¶ 80; Doc. 94 ¶ 80). Lewis immediately called a “code blue, ” and medical and corrections staff promptly responded. (Doc. 84 ¶ 81; Doc. 94 ¶ 81). Emergency medical services arrived and transported Nealman to Lewistown Hospital. (Doc. 84 ¶ 82; Doc. 94 ¶ 82). Nealman passed away at Lewiston Hospital on August 20, 2013. (Doc. 84 ¶ 83; Doc. 94 ¶ 83).

         Plaintiff commenced this action on August 12, 2015, and the case is currently proceeding on plaintiff’s second amended complaint. After Rule 12(b) motion practice and a stipulation between the parties, the following claims and defendants remain: a claim for deliberate indifference to Nealman’s particular vulnerability to suicide pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against all defendants (Count 1); a claim for supervisory liability pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Huffman and Kearns (Count 2); a state-law claim for medical negligence against Wert (Count 3); and a ...

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