946 F.2d 1017 (3rd Cir. 1991), 90-1442, Colburn v. Upper Darby Tp.

Docket Nº:90-1442.
Citation:946 F.2d 1017
Party Name:COLBURN, Sue Ann, Administratrix of the Estate of Melinda Lee Stierheim, Deceased, Appellant, v. UPPER DARBY TOWNSHIP, Upper Darby Township Police Department, Miller, Diane, Ind. and as Police Officer-Matron of Upper Darby Township, Kern, Martin, Police Commissioner of Upper Darby Township, and Ward, James J., Mayor of Upper Darby Township.
Case Date:October 10, 1991
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

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946 F.2d 1017 (3rd Cir. 1991)

COLBURN, Sue Ann, Administratrix of the Estate of Melinda

Lee Stierheim, Deceased, Appellant,


UPPER DARBY TOWNSHIP, Upper Darby Township Police

Department, Miller, Diane, Ind. and as Police Officer-Matron

of Upper Darby Township, Kern, Martin, Police Commissioner

of Upper Darby Township, and Ward, James J., Mayor of Upper

Darby Township.

No. 90-1442.

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

October 10, 1991

Argued Nov. 16, 1990.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Joseph R. Pozzuolo, Gary M. Perkiss (argued), Pozzuolo & Perkiss, Philadelphia, Pa., for appellant.

Dean F. Murtagh, John P. Shusted (argued), Ellen M. Rebstock, German, Gallagher & Murtagh, Philadelphia, Pa., for appellees.

Before STAPLETON, HUTCHINSON and GARTH, Circuit Judges.


STAPLETON, Circuit Judge:

We are called upon again to consider the standards governing a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action brought in the aftermath of the suicide of a pretrial detainee. Sue Ann Colburn alleges that Upper Darby Township ("Upper Darby"), its police department, and an individual police officer violated her daughter's due process rights by failing to prevent her suicide. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants. We will affirm.

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This case has been the subject of a previously reported decision. Colburn v. Upper Darby Township, 838 F.2d 663 (3d Cir.1988), cert. denied, 489 U.S. 1065, 109 S.Ct. 1338, 103 L.Ed.2d 808 (1989) ("Colburn I "). There, we vacated the order of the district court granting defendant's motion to dismiss. Colburn returns to this court to appeal the district court's subsequent order granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants after full discovery.

We exercise plenary review and apply the same standard utilized by the district court; we review the record to determine whether the defendants, the moving parties, have demonstrated that there is no genuine issue of material fact. See Erie Telecommunications, Inc. v. City of Erie, 853 F.2d 1084, 1093 (3d Cir.1988). In order to defeat the defendants' motions, Colburn must introduce "more than a mere scintilla of evidence" showing that there is a genuine issue for trial; she must introduce evidence from which a rational finder of fact could find in her favor. Williams v. Borough of West Chester, 891 F.2d 458, 460 (3d Cir.1989). See also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-24, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2552-53, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986).


On April 30, 1985, Melinda Lee Stierheim ("Stierheim") fatally shot herself while in the custody of the Upper Darby police. Earlier that evening, police officers had arrested her on charges of public intoxication. Stierheim was clad in tight fitting denim cut-off shorts and a halter top. The arresting officer conducted a "pat-down" search of Stierheim, but found only keys.

Stierheim was calm and subdued during the ride to the police station. Upon arrival at approximately 5:30 P.M., police officers placed her in a holding cell while they completed the necessary paperwork. From the radio room of the station, Officer Frank Guille observed that Stierheim was looking at three blue pills she held in her hand. Officer Guille entered the cell and confiscated them. Later tests identified the pills as Valium. Officer Guille conducted a second pat-down search and discovered a bullet in the pocket of Stierheim's shorts.

At that time, defendant Diane Miller ("Miller"), arrived in the cell. Miller was the custodial officer responsible for body searches and observation of female detainees and had been called on duty specifically as a result of Stierheim's detention. Miller conducted a third search of Stierheim.

I did her waistband first. I put my fingers around her jeans, back and front. And then I did--I did her breasts and then I told her to turn around and I touched her back, okay. And I said, "Okay. I have to touch your pockets now."

And she had a little watch pocket, whatever you call it, and that's where I found a little musical charm, a note. Okay. That was in there. And then I checked her other pockets. And her pants were extremely tight, because my rings were caught. They were pulling off. And I pulled them out, and I found nothing at all. I hit her vagina and her front. That's all she had on.

App. at 84. In addition, Miller patted Stierheim around her entire body, removed Stierheim's sandals and examined her sandals and feet, and looked in her ears. Miller did observe a number of tattoos, but she did not see any scars on Stierheim's arms. Miller did not perform a strip search because Stierheim was scantily clad and was being detained for public drunkenness.

When Miller completed the third search, she and Officer Guille moved Stierheim to the first jail cell in the area designated for women. A video camera enables police to monitor all but approximately one square foot of the cell. A protruding toilet and sink obstruct the camera's view of that area. Stierheim was in view on the video screen throughout Miller's shift. In addition, Miller checked on Stierheim personally more than once every half hour.

Miller made three visits to Stierheim's cell; on one occasion she was asleep and on the other two there was conversation between

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Miller and Stierheim. During one conversation, Stierheim indicated to Miller that she had gotten drunk because of problems with her boyfriend. At all times during Miller's supervision, Stierheim was calm and cooperative and gave Miller no indication that she was contemplating suicide.

At 6:15 P.M. Julia Whalen ("Whalen") relieved Miller. Like Miller, Whalen was specifically responsible for supervising Stierheim. Miller told Whalen that Stierheim had been arrested for public intoxication. Whalen continued to observe Stierheim on the video monitor and to personally check on her every half hour. Shortly after Whalen went on duty, Stierheim told Whalen that she had a three year old daughter. The child was with Stierheim's mother who cared for her four days a week. Her nickname, like that of her mother, was "Mindy."

After 7:00 P.M. Stierheim became agitated and began yelling that she wanted to go home. Whalen tried to calm her. Stierheim related that she had been fighting with her boyfriend. She was being evicted from her apartment and told Whalen that she wanted to get home to get her furniture. Stierheim also revealed that she had taken one Valium pill earlier in the evening.

By 8:00 P.M. Stierheim had calmed down and Whalen permitted her to call her mother. Stierheim asked Colburn to come to the station and tell the police that "it wasn't her fault." Colburn refused and an argument ensued. Colburn's testimony regarding the remainder of the conversation was as follows:

And, then, I said I wouldn't come down, and she got angry with me and at that point we switched into an old argument, which is, "If you don't come down, all right, you'll never see the baby again." And I've heard this one before. At that point in time, I felt a little relieved, because I've heard this argument before and, you know, "you'll never see Mindy again; I'll take her away," et cetera, et cetera.

Every time she would really get angry with me, this is the argument she would throw at me.

Q. Did she specifically say, "You'll never see Mindy again?"

A. Yes, or something like that.

Q. Was it your understanding she was referring to her daughter?

A. Yes. Like I said, I've heard this argument before. This was not a new argument. The other was the part that's odd to me.

Q. And that was when she mentioned, "It's not my fault?"

A. "Come down and tell them it's not my fault."

Q. What was the tone of her conversation at the start of this telephone conversation?

A. Demanding.

Q. Demanding?

A. Yes.

Q. Did that manner change over the course of the telephone conversation?

A. No. She was, you--she was like in control of the conversation. You know, "Come down and tell them it's not my fault." And then, she got angry, because I said, "I'm not coming down."

Thus, while Stierheim said something like "You'll never see Mindy again," Colburn acknowledges that, in context, her reference was to taking her child away from Colburn. Whalen testified that this was her understanding of the conversation as well.

Whalen went back to Stierheim's cell about 8:30 P.M., a half hour after the telephone call, and found her "calm." Whalen told Stierheim that she would be released at 10:00 P.M. Shortly before Whalen made her 9:00 P.M. check, however, she heard a small "pop." When she checked on Stierheim, she found her crouched in the camera's blind spot, head down, in a pool of blood. A small handgun lay nearby. Later that evening Stierheim was declared dead.

On April 30, 1985, Upper Darby had the following relevant written policies in place pertaining to "Control of Prisoners":

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2. Search

A. All persons placed under arrest shall be "frisked" or "patted down" at the scene of arrest before being placed in a police vehicle for transport.

B. During or immediately after any booking procedure, all prisoners will be thoroughly searched for any weapons or any other articles which could be used in any way to harm themselves or others or with which they could do any damage to any cell area.

C. A police matron shall be in attendance at any time a female person is confined in any cell area in the Public Safety Building.

1. The police matron shall conduct all in house searches of all female prisoners.

* * * * * *

5. Prisoner Safety And Well Being.

A. All prisoners shall be granted the use of the telephone as soon as possible after arrest and upon request.


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