891 F.2d 829 (11th Cir. 1990), 88-8563, Greason v. Kemp

Docket Nº:88-8563.
Citation:891 F.2d 829
Party Name:Marilyn GREASON, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. Ralph KEMP, et al., Defendants-Appellants.
Case Date:January 09, 1990
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
 
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Page 829

891 F.2d 829 (11th Cir. 1990)

Marilyn GREASON, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellees,

v.

Ralph KEMP, et al., Defendants-Appellants.

No. 88-8563.

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

January 9, 1990

Page 830

Neal B. Childers, Cathy A. Cox, Asst. Attys. Gen., Atlanta, Ga., for defendants-appellants.

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Joseph H. Chambless, Emmitte H. Griggs, Harriss, Watkins, Davis & Chambless, Macon, Ga., for Fodor.

Robert B. Remar, Susan M. Garrett, Remar & Graettinger, Atlanta, Ga., for plaintiffs-appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

Before TJOFLAT, Chief Judge, EDMONDSON, Circuit Judge, and ATKINS [*], Senior District Judge.

TJOFLAT, Chief Judge:

This is an action for money damages. It was brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1982) 1 by the personal representatives of the estate of Charles Greason, a Georgia prison inmate who committed suicide while incarcerated. The plaintiffs claim that their decedent committed suicide because the defendants--the prison officials responsible for his custody and those who provided his mental health care--were deliberately indifferent to his psychiatric needs, in violation of his rights under the eighth and fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution. 2 The defendants contend that, under the circumstances of this case, they are not answerable in money damages because they have qualified immunity. They presented this defense to the district court in a joint motion for summary judgment, arguing that the evidence before the court conclusively demonstrated that they had responded to Greason's psychiatric needs in a constitutional manner. 3 The court rejected their argument and denied their motion. The defendants then took this interlocutory appeal to obtain review of the court's ruling. We affirm. 4

I.

The district court refused to grant the defendants summary judgment because the court was not prepared to hold, on the record before it, that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law. In deciding whether the court erred, we take the record as it was presented to the district court and view it in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs. See Waldrop v. Evans, 871 F.2d 1030, 1034-35 (11th Cir.1989). Viewed in this light, the record reveals the following.

In early June 1985, Charles Greason, the plaintiffs' decedent, pled guilty but mentally ill to assault charges and was sentenced to prison for a term of five years. 5 After he was sentenced, Greason was taken to the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center (GDCC) for a mental health evaluation and any treatment that might be necessary.

Greason had a history of mental illness. He had recently been treated at the Gwinnett County Mental Health Center for depression and given anti-depression medication because he had contemplated suicide. Susanna Stoltzfus was Greason's

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therapist at that facility. Upon learning of Greason's incarceration at the GDCC, she sent a letter to the clinical director there, R.T. Oliver, M.D., describing Greason's current mental status and relating his history of mental illness. In her letter, Stoltzfus noted that Greason had been hospitalized thirteen times at the Gwinnett County Mental Health Center during the ten years prior to his incarceration and that he had been diagnosed as a schizophrenic with suicidal tendencies. She therefore urged Dr. Oliver to continue Greason's anti-depression medication and to monitor him closely. Albert Duncan, Ph.D., the mental health director for the Georgia Department of Corrections, received the same advice from James Brooks, M.D., a psychiatrist with the Georgia Department of Human Resources, who had evaluated Greason before his transfer to the GDCC. In a formal report to Dr. Duncan, Dr. Brooks stated that Greason continued to have suicidal thoughts and needed to be maintained on his anti-depression medication. After these two reports were read, they were placed in Greason's clinical file.

Greason was kept at the GDCC for four months. 6 During that time, he was seen twice by the Center's psychiatrist, Frank Fodor, M.D., who was responsible for the evaluation and treatment of the mentally ill prisoners at the GDCC. Dr. Fodor came to the GDCC one day a week for six and one-half hours; during these visits, he saw as many as twenty-five to thirty inmates, spending, on the average, less than fifteen minutes per inmate.

The first time Dr. Fodor saw Greason was on August 22, 1985, two and one-half months after Greason's arrival at the GDCC. Dr. Fodor spent a few minutes with Greason and promptly concluded that Greason's condition had stabilized and that his anti-depression medication should be discontinued; he therefore discontinued Greason's medication without reviewing Greason's clinical file or assessing his mental status to determine his current potential for suicide.

Calvin Brown, the mental health team leader at the GDCC, was the staff person responsible for Greason's case. Brown worked under Dr. Fodor's supervision; Fodor instructed him on the type of care Greason should receive, e.g., medication, counselling, or monitoring. Brown, in turn, kept Fodor apprised of Greason's progress, reporting to Fodor when Fodor made his weekly visits or more often if necessary. 7

Following his August 22 visit with Greason, Dr. Fodor instructed Brown to discontinue Greason's anti-depression medication, but he did not tell Brown to monitor Greason for the adverse effects the discontinuance might produce. Dr. Fodor informed Dr. Oliver of his instruction to Brown; the information was contained in some cursory notes Fodor gave Oliver about his visit with Greason. Oliver put the notes in Greason's clinical file but took no other action. In particular, he did not direct Brown to monitor Greason.

Dr. Fodor's second, and final, visit with Greason occurred twenty-eight days later, on September 19. This session, like the first, lasted but a few minutes and was perfunctory. Dr. Fodor made no assessment of Greason's mental status and left no instructions with Calvin Brown. As before, Dr. Fodor made some cursory notes of his visit with Greason and left them with Dr. Oliver, who placed them in Greason's clinical file.

A few days later, Greason's parents visited him at the GDCC. Greason told them that since the discontinuance of his anti-depression medication, he had been unable to sleep, had been experiencing feelings of despair and thoughts of suicide, and on one occasion had attempted to kill himself by tying something around his throat. 8 They

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met with Brown following the visit, told him what their son had said, and urged Brown to have Greason transferred to a hospital, fearing that he might attempt suicide again.

Brown told Greason's parents not to worry about their son, that he would "take care of it." Brown, however, did nothing. He neglected to contact Dr. Fodor; consequently, Fodor had no knowledge of Greason's suicide attempt. Brown could have placed Greason on "a suicide watch," a procedure in which suicidal inmates are placed in stripped cells and subjected to around-the-clock observation, but he chose not to take this step. In sum, he made no effort to have Greason monitored.

On October 13, 1985, twenty-four days later, Greason was found dead in his cell; he had hung himself from the cell bars with his sweat shirt. The Greasons thereafter brought this action, seeking money damages against Calvin Brown and Dr. Fodor, those immediately responsible for providing Greason mental health care. The Greasons also sought damages from their superiors: Ralph Kemp and Dr. Oliver, respectively the warden and the clinical director of the GDCC, and Dr. Duncan, the mental health director of the Georgia Department of Corrections.

II.

The doctrine of qualified immunity insulates government officials from personal liability for money damages for actions taken pursuant to their discretionary authority. In Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 2738, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982), the Supreme Court established the test for courts to use in determining whether, in a given case, such immunity is available. The Court said that "government officials ... generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Id. The appellants, here, claim that, as a matter of law, they met this test; accordingly, the district court should have granted them summary judgment. They advance two independent arguments in support of their position. First, the defendants argue that, at the time of Greason's suicide, prison inmates had no clearly established constitutional right to psychiatric care. Second, they argue that, even if such a right existed, reasonable persons, standing in appellants' respective shoes, would not have known that the conduct appellees challenge violated that right. We turn, now, to these arguments.

A.

To decide whether, at the time of Greason's suicide, prisoners had a clearly established constitutional right to psychiatric care, we look to the law established by the Supreme Court, the courts of appeals, and the district courts. See Harlow, 457 U.S. at 819 n. 32, 102 S.Ct. at 2738 n. 32. We begin with Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 97 S.Ct. 285, 50 L.Ed.2d 251 (1976), which was decided by the Supreme Court nearly a decade before the events in this case took place. In Estelle, the Court held that "deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes the 'unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain' proscribed by the Eighth Amendment." Id. at 104, 97 S.Ct. at 291 (citation omitted). Because Estelle...

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