751 F.2d 1448 (5th Cir. 1985), 83-2615, Partridge v. Two Unknown Police Officers of City of Houston, Tex.

Docket Nº:83-2615.
Citation:751 F.2d 1448
Party Name:Ralph PARTRIDGE and Betty Partridge, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. TWO UNKNOWN POLICE OFFICERS OF the CITY OF HOUSTON, TEXAS, et al., Defendants-Appellees.
Case Date:February 04, 1985
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

Page 1448

751 F.2d 1448 (5th Cir. 1985)

Ralph PARTRIDGE and Betty Partridge, Plaintiffs-Appellants,



et al., Defendants-Appellees.

No. 83-2615.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

February 4, 1985

Page 1449

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 1450

John P. Mustachio, Houston, Tex., for plaintiffs-appellants.

Mary Madigan Dinan, Asst. City Atty., Houston, Tex., for City of Houston and Houston Police.

D. Reid Walker, Houston, Tex., for Morris.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

Before WISDOM, RANDALL and JOLLY, Circuit Judges.

WISDOM, Circuit Judge:

The question this case presents is whether the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment imposes a duty upon the state to protect prisoners (here detainees) from themselves. The parents of Michael Wayne Partridge brought suit under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 (1982) against the City of Houston, its police department, and various persons within the department after their son hanged himself in a solitary cell within a few hours of his arrest. The district court dismissed the suit under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The Partridges appealed, claiming that their son's medical alert braclets, his aberrant behavior upon arrest, his record of an earlier attempted hanging, and his father's warning to the arresting and transporting officers that Michael was unstable should have alerted the jail's staff to their son's suicidal condition. The Partridges also alleged that inadequate training and staffing within the jail facility contributed to the jail staff's inattention to their son's suicidal behavior. Although the dismissal of the suit against James Morris, the transporting officer, was proper, we find that it was error to dismiss the claim and accordingly reverse.


The pleadings state the following facts. In February 1980, a Houston police officer arrested Michael Wayne Partridge on suspicion of burglary and theft. 1 While the officer was investigating the scene of the alleged crime, Partridge became agitated and violent, and attempted to kick the doors and windows out of the car. The officer, who was working alone at the time, requested a two-man unit to transport Partridge to the jail. When the back-up unit arrived, Partridge was still kicking at the doors and windows. A sergeant at the scene asked Partridge's father if the boy had any "mental problems". Partridge's father told the officer that the boy had suffered a nervous breakdown.

The two transporting officers, one of whom was Morris, handcuffed Partridge and drove him to the jail. On the way to the jail, Partridge intentionally struck his head at least once against the plexiglass divider between the front and back seats. Morris was able to calm Partridge, and by

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the time they arrived at the jail, Partridge seemed composed. Neither of the two officers called anyone's attention to Partridge's aberrant behavior. Partridge was placed in solitary confinement. The jailor was unaware that Partridge's clinical record showed that Partridge had attempted suicide during an earlier confinement. The records were maintained four doors away from the booking desk. The jailor did see Partridge's two medical alert bracelets, and noted on Partridge's booking card "heart and mental". Three hours later Michael Partridge hanged himself.

The plaintiffs further alleged that suicide is a known risk at detention centers, that defendants knew or should have known of Partridge's suicidal tendencies, and that the defendants' policies and procedures inadequately protected detainees from the risk of suicide. 2 The defendants filed a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, arguing that the complaint failed to allege unconstitutionally cruel and unusual conditions at the jail, and that the complaint failed to allege a legal deprivation or a pattern, practice, or policy that could have caused any deprivation.

Upon the defendants' motion to dismiss and the plaintiff's response, the district court held that the plaintiffs had failed to state a claim under the "deliberate indifference" standard of Estelle v. Gamble, 1976, 429 U.S. 97, 104, 97 S.Ct. 285, 291, 50 L.Ed.2d 251, 260. The court explained:

"In light of considerations established by the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Woodall v. Foti, 648 F.2d 268 (5th Cir.1981), to determine whether the alleged denial amounts to deliberate indifference to the decedent's medical needs, it is the opinion of the Court that the plaintiffs' claim is insufficient to state a claim for relief under 42 U.S.C. 1983 (1976)."

This appeal followed.


  1. The Standard of Review

    The district court styled its action as a dismissal under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), although it stated in its dismissal that it had "reviewed the record". We therefore face at the outset the question of whether we should treat the court's action as in fact a grant of summary judgment. 3 Carpenters Local v. Pratt-Farnsworth, 5 Cir.1982, 690 F.2d 489, 500 (Randall, J.), cert. denied, 1983, --- U.S. ----, 104 S.Ct. 335, 78 L.Ed.2d 305. (See also Carter v. Stanton, 1972, 405 U.S. 669, 671, 92 S.Ct. 1232, 1234, 31 L.Ed.2d 569, 572, in which, when the court considered matters outside the pleadings, a motion to dismiss was treated as a motion for summary judgment.) To the extent that the district court treated the motion to dismiss as a motion for summary judgment, we find that the ruling was premature. Such a motion is proper only if there are no matters open to factual dispute. In the present case, there are both material facts that are disputed and material facts that are unknown. The extent of Partridge's aberrant behavior during arrest and transport to the jail is uncertain. The record does not adequately reveal the jail's cell watch procedures and whether these procedures were followed. There is little discussion of policies at the jail or training of its staff. It is unclear if the jail took any precautions against suicide, such as removing an inmate's belt and shoelaces. Although we express no opinion on these issues or their relative weight, the failure to address them, together with the incomplete nature of the record before us and before the district court, makes summary judgment inappropriate.

    Page 1452

    To the extent that the district court confined itself to the pleadings, we treat the ruling as a response to a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). In reviewing such a dismissal, we may not go outside the pleadings. We accept all well pleaded facts as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Carpenters Local, 690 F.2d at 500. We cannot uphold the dismissal "unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief". Conley v. Gibson, 1957, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46, 78 S.Ct. 99, 101-02, 2 L.Ed.2d 80, 84; Cook & Nichol, Inc. v. Plimsoll Club, 5 Cir.1971, 451 F.2d 505, 506. Suicidal behavior evidences a serious medical need, and deliberate indifference to such behavior violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. We find that the plaintiffs have alleged a cognizable claim under section 1983.

  2. The Scope of Duty Under Section 1983

    The Supreme Court has held that prison authorities have a duty under the Eighth Amendment to provide needed medical care for inmates, and that "deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners" violates the Constitution. Estelle v. Gamble, 1976, 429 U.S. 97, 104, 97 S.Ct. 285, 291, 50 L.Ed.2d 251, 260. Our Court has recently summarized the law on this point:

    "The state has an 'obligation to provide medical care for those whom it is punishing by incarceration.' '[A]cts or omissions sufficiently harmful to evidence deliberate indifference to serious medical needs' of inmates constitute cruel and unusual punishment."

    Ruiz v. Estelle, 5 Cir.1982, 679 F.2d 1115, 1149.

    The defendants acknowledge that prison authorities have a constitutional duty to provide necessary medical care to inmates under Estelle, but contend that the duty does not extend to protecting inmates from themselves. 4 We find, however, that the Eighth Amendment does reach some instances of deliberate self injury. This holding is consistent with the position taken by other courts of appeals and comports with our own precedents.

    There is no sound underlying distinction between the right to medical care for physical ills and for psychological or psychiatric afflictions. See Woodall v. Foti, 5 Cir.1981, 648 F.2d 268, 272; Bowring v. Godwin, 4 Cir.1977, 551 F.2d 44, 47. Treatment of mentally disturbed inmates is a "serious medical need" under Estelle. Woodall, 648 F.2d at 272. The "deliberate indifference" standard of Estelle is therefore equally applicable to assessing the constitutional adequacy of treating psychological or psychiatric ailments at a prison.

    Suicidal tendencies evidence a psychological or psychiatric condition that could be as serious as or more serious than any physical pathology or injury. And just as a failure to act to save a prisoner suffering from gangrene might constitute deliberate indifference, Bass v. Sullivan, 5 Cir.1977, 550 F.2d 229, 231-32, cert. denied, 434 U.S. 864, 98 S.Ct. 195, 54 L.Ed.2d 138, failure to take any steps to save a suicidal prisoner from injuring himself may also constitute deliberate indifference to a serious medical need. Such indifference might be manifested by failure to search adequately a medically trained prisoner...

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