Blaine Cnty. v. Stricker

Decision Date11 April 2017
Docket NumberDA 16-0076
Citation387 Mont. 202,394 P.3d 159
Parties BLAINE COUNTY and Hill County, Petitioners, Appellees and Cross-Appellants, v. Summer STRICKER, Personal Representative of the Estate of Allen J. Longsoldier, Jr., Respondent and Appellant, and Cross-Appellee, and The Montana Human Rights Commission, Respondent.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

For Appellant: Patrick F. Flaherty, Daniel J. Flaherty, Paul Gallardo, Attorneys at Law, Great Falls, Montana, Steven T. Potts, Steven T. Potts, PLLC, Great Falls, Montana

For Appellees: Maureen H. Lennnon, Gregory L. Bonilla, MACo Defense Services, Helena, Montana, Mark F. Higgins, Ugrin, Alexander, Zadick & Higgins, P.C., Great Falls, Montana

For Respondent Montana Human Rights Commission: Scott M. Stearns, Boone Karlberg, Missoula, Montana, Timothy Little, Special Assistant Attorney General, Department of Labor, Helena, Montana

Justice Beth Baker delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶1 Allen Longsoldier, Jr.—an eighteen-year-old Native American—died tragically from delirium tremens, a result of alcohol withdrawal, while in custody at the Hill County Detention Center following his arrest by Blaine County authorities. Longsoldier's Estate, represented by Summer Stricker, brought this case before the Montana Human Rights Bureau alleging that Hill County and Blaine County discriminated against Longsoldier on the basis of race and disability. The Hearing Officer concluded that the Counties had not discriminated against Longsoldier. The Estate appealed to the Human Rights Commission, which found clear error in the Hearing Officer's findings and concluded that the Counties had discriminated against Longsoldier.

¶2 The Counties petitioned the First Judicial District Court to review the Commission's final agency decision. Presiding Judge Jeffrey Sherlock reversed and vacated the Commission's decision and reinstated the Hearing Officer's order as the final agency decision. On the Estate's motion to alter or amend, Judge James Reynolds—who had assumed jurisdiction of the case following Judge Sherlock's retirement—concluded that Judge Sherlock had, as a matter of law, fashioned an improper remedy.

¶3 Both parties appeal, raising multiple issues. We find the following issues dispositive:

1. Whether Judge Sherlock correctly concluded that the Commission improperly modified the Hearing Officer's findings.
2. Whether Judge Reynolds correctly concluded that Judge Sherlock erred as a matter of law by reinstating the Hearing Officer's decision as the final agency decision.

¶4 We affirm Judge Sherlock's order and reverse Judge Reynolds's order.

PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

¶5 Longsoldier was an intelligent and talented young man who struggled with alcoholism and depression. He excelled at basketball and was trying to get into college at the time of his death. His alcohol abuse resulted in a number of juvenile court proceedings, which led to supervision by a deputy juvenile probation officer.

¶6 In the fall of 2009, Longsoldier's probation officer tried to contact him in order to close his file. The probation officer was unable to get in touch with Longsoldier and eventually requested a "pick up and hold." A Blaine County sheriff's deputy arrested Longsoldier early on the morning of November 19, 2009. The deputy transported Longsoldier to the Hill County Detention Center, where Blaine County's adult prisoners are held pursuant to an agreement between the Counties.

¶7 Longsoldier had been drinking heavily for several days prior to his arrest. He had not, however, been drinking immediately before his arrest and showed no signs of intoxication when he was brought to the detention center. Longsoldier did not receive a medical screening when booked into the detention center, contrary to the detention center's admissions policy. The detention center's daily log book indicates that Longsoldier appeared to have no issues—aside from not sleeping—for the first twenty-four hours of his incarceration. At 3:28 a.m. on November 20, 2009, however, the log book indicates that Longsoldier complained that he could not hold down water and that he asked to go to the hospital. Shortly after that, a fellow inmate observed Longsoldier exhibit behavior that suggested he was hallucinating. Longsoldier's condition continued to deteriorate. Various entries in the log book demonstrate that detention center officers recognized that Longsoldier was experiencing symptoms associated with "detoxing" or alcohol withdrawal. Witnesses testified that such symptoms are common among inmates who enter the detention center intoxicated and remain while their bodies process alcohol from their systems.

¶8 During the late afternoon of November 21, 2009, Longsoldier began pounding on the door of his cell and acting increasingly violent. By this point he had not slept for nearly three days. At around 7:00 that evening, Longsoldier was taken to Northern Montana Hospital by a Blaine County sheriff's deputy. A doctor examined him and gave him several medications. The doctor did not diagnose Longsoldier with alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Longsoldier's condition improved to the point that he could hold down water. The doctor ordered that Longsoldier be discharged with six Ativan tablets, prescribed for anxiety. The Hospital discharged Longsoldier with prescriptions for Cymbalta and Ativan, but did not provide the six Ativan tablets the doctor had ordered. The prescriptions were never filled. The daily log indicates that Longsoldier was back at the detention center around 9:00 p.m.

¶9 Longsoldier's condition worsened shortly after he returned to the detention center. The log book reveals that over the course of the next several hours officers observed Longsoldier hallucinating, talking to himself, gagging, dry heaving, sweating, and pleading for help. By around 2:30 a.m. on November 22, 2009, Longsoldier's condition had deteriorated so substantially that a detention center officer called Blaine County authorities and informed them that they may need to take Longsoldier back to the Hospital. The Blaine County dispatcher then called the Hospital and spoke with a nurse. The nurse told the dispatcher that Longsoldier just needed to drink fluids and that he was "playing them." The nurse advised the dispatcher that Longsoldier was not physically ill and "just doesn't like being there." The Blaine County dispatcher relayed this information to the officer at the detention center, and told the officer that the Hospital said "there's nothing they could do for him."

¶10 The log book entries for the next several hours indicate that Longsoldier continued to suffer from hallucinations, talk to himself, not eat, and not drink any water. An entry at 10:44 p.m. indicates that Longsoldier was shivering and non-responsive. Shortly thereafter, a detention center officer called an ambulance. The ambulance picked up Longsoldier just before midnight on November 22. Longsoldier died at the Hospital from delirium tremens at approximately 2:00 a.m. on November 23, 2009.

¶11 In May 2010, the Estate filed a claim against the Counties and the Hospital with the Human Rights Bureau. The complaint alleged that the Counties and the Hospital discriminated against Longsoldier because of his race—Native American—and because of his disability—alcoholism. The Hospital settled with the Estate shortly before the contested case hearing. The Hearing Officer heard the claims against the Counties during a four-day hearing in September 2011. In April 2012, the Hearing Officer issued a thorough thirty-page decision. The Hearing Officer found:

There is no evidence that [the Counties'] action or inactions, or the lack of either better information about alcohol withdrawal or any training or information about delirium tremens before November 2009, were the result of any discriminatory animus on the part of [the Counties] ... toward either alcoholics or Native Americans.

The Hearing Officer concluded that the Counties did not illegally discriminate against Longsoldier due to his race or disability.

¶12 Longsoldier's Estate appealed the Hearing Officer's decision to the Commission. The Commission held a hearing in July 2012 but the hearing was not recorded due to technical difficulties. At a second hearing in September 2012, the Commission considered its draft order to remand the case to the Hearing Officer. The Commission approved the remand order. It concluded:

[T]he hearing officer misapprehended the effect of the evidence regarding the failure of law enforcement personnel of Hill and Blaine Counties to have the prescriptions issued to Longsoldier by the [Northern Montana Hospital] treating physician on Saturday, November 21, 2009, filled and the failure of Detention Center personnel to administer those medications, as directed by the doctor.

The Commission found that the Counties' failure to fill the prescriptions "manifest[ed] a discriminatory indifference to Longsoldier's medical needs based on his disability." On that basis, the Commission determined that two of the Hearing Officer's findings of fact were "clearly erroneous" and modified those findings. Neither the Hearing Officer nor the Commission found racial discrimination, and the Estate does not contest that ruling. The Commission remanded to the Hearing Officer to determine the appropriate relief.

¶13 Upon remand, the Hearing Officer found the Counties liable to the Estate for $300,000 for the emotional distress Longsoldier suffered. All parties appealed the Hearing Officer's decision and the Commission conducted another hearing in July 2013. The Commission increased the award to $1,350,000 in its final agency decision.

¶14 The Counties filed a petition for judicial review with the District Court. Because the Counties' petition alleged a variety of procedural errors, Judge Sherlock allowed the parties to engage in discovery regarding the alleged errors. In his order, Judge Sherlo...

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