Coley v. Lucas Cnty.

Decision Date21 August 2015
Docket NumberNos. 14–3134,14–3137.,14–3136,s. 14–3134
Citation799 F.3d 530
PartiesDenise M. COLEY, Administrator of the estate of Carlton L. Benton; DeCarlos A. Benton; M.L., a minor; Carla Benton, Plaintiffs–Appellees, v. LUCAS COUNTY, OHIO, et al., Defendants, John E. Gray (14–3134); Jay M. Schmeltz (14–3136); James A. Telb (14–3137), Defendants–Appellants.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit

ARGUED:Joseph S. Simpson, Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, LLP, Toledo, Ohio, for Appellant in 14–3134. Thomas J. Antonini, Robison, Curphey & O'Connell, Toledo, Ohio, for Appellant in 14–3136. Dennis A. Lyle, Anspach Meeks Ellenberger LLP, Toledo, Ohio, for Appellant in 14–3137. Aparesh Paul, Levin & Associates Co., L.P.A., Cleveland, Ohio, for Appellees. ON BRIEF:Joseph S. Simpson, Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, LLP, Toledo, Ohio, for Appellant in 14–3134. Thomas J. Antonini, Robison, Curphey & O'Connell, Toledo, Ohio, for Appellant in 14–3136. Dennis A. Lyle, Anspach Meeks Ellenberger LLP, Toledo, Ohio, for Appellant in 14–3137. Aparesh Paul, Joel Levin, Levin & Associates Co., L.P.A., Cleveland, Ohio, for Appellees.

Before: SILER, SUTTON, and STRANCH, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

JANE B. STRANCH, Circuit Judge.

The family of Carlton Benton, a pretrial detainee, was told that he died of natural causes in the Lucas County jail in 2004. This case, alleging claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law, was brought in 2008 when family members discovered that jail employees had shoved Benton to a cement floor, held him in a chokehold to the point of unconsciousness, left him to die in his cell, and then engaged in a cover-up with the aid of their Sheriff. The district court refused to grant the motions to dismiss of Officer Jay Schmeltz, Sergeant John Gray, and Sheriff James Telb, denying their requests for qualified and state statutory immunity. Defendants appeal. We find that these appeals of the denial of immunity lack any meritorious basis. We AFFIRM the district court's orders denying Schmeltz, Gray, and Telb qualified and statutory immunity and return the case to the district court for expeditious handling.

I. BACKGROUND
A. Facts Alleged in the Complaint

Lucas County took Carlton Benton into custody in February 2004 as a pretrial detainee. In late May, Benton was taken to St. Vincent's Hospital in Toledo, Ohio, where he received medical treatment for seizures. In preparing to transfer Benton back to the Lucas County jail from the hospital, Lucas County employees, including Officer Jay M. Schmeltz, disengaged Benton from various kinds of medical equipment and the restraints that bound him to the hospital bed. During this process, Benton resisted, and Lucas County employees sprayed him with chemicals and repeatedly struck his torso and upper body. Benton was subdued, placed in handcuffs, the handcuffs were secured to a belly chain, and he was placed in leg irons. He was then seated in a wheelchair, loaded into a van, and transported back to the Lucas County Jail without further incident.

According to the operative complaint—the Second Amended Complaint—here is what happened next. Plaintiffs allege that Schmeltz was “frustrated, agitated, and angry” as a result of the altercation with Benton at the hospital. Upon arrival at the jail, Schmeltz lifted Benton from the wheelchair and escorted him through the jail's booking area. In his shackled state, Benton could only “shuffle” with “short and unbalanced steps.” While in the booking area, Schmeltz, “with malice, and in bad faith, with the intention of causing harm and injury,” “shoved and struck” Benton from behind, “causing him to fall straight to the [cement] floor,” “striking his head on the wall” as he fell. Benton was powerless to break his fall. Sergeant John E. Gray and other officers in the booking area witnessed this event.

Schmeltz then pulled Benton up from the floor and, with the help of Gray and others, escorted Benton to the second floor medical unit. Once inside a cell, Schmeltz, Gray, and other deputies placed Benton on a bed, handcuffed him to the bed, and attempted to remove his many restraints. During this process, Benton began to “squirm around, struggle, and moved his legs, making it more difficult to get a hold of him to remove the restraints.” Although he was moving, Benton was “restrained and not posing any threat” to anyone present. Allegedly “frustrated, agitated and angry” that it was difficult to remove handcuffs, belly chain and leg irons, Gray grasped Benton from behind and placed him in a chokehold. When Gray applied the chokehold, Benton stopped resisting and gasped for air, “making choking and other gurgling sounds.” Hearing the gurgling sounds, another officer told Gray to stop choking Benton, but Gray would not release the chokehold. A few seconds later, he went limp and became unconscious. Once Benton was unconscious, the officers removed his restraints. Gray then instructed the other officers to leave the cell. Benton lay “silent, motionless, [and] limp.”

Although aware that Benton was unconscious, Gray knowingly and intentionally failed to inform any of the nurses or other medical personnel working just outside the medical cell that he had used a chokehold on Benton or that he was unconscious. Gray later admitted that he heard Benton gasping and gurgling and knew that he should have told medical personnel about what had occurred. Approximately ten minutes later, a Lucas County deputy on regular rounds entered Benton's cell and discovered that he was unconscious and not breathing. County personnel then transported Benton by ambulance to St. Vincent's Hospital. There he was pronounced brain dead on June 1, 2004 and removed from life support the following day.

Gray and Schmeltz made false entries in official reports chronicling the incidents that related to Benton's death, intentionally and knowingly failing to state that Schmeltz had shoved Benton to the cement floor of the jail or that Gray had choked Benton to a state of unconsciousness, leading to his death. Based on these falsifications, the Lucas County Coroner's office initially declared Benton's death to be the result of complications caused by seizures and thus “natural” causes.

In 2008, approximately four years after Benton's death in 2004, Plaintiffs first learned that he had died from injuries inflicted on him while in the custody of Lucas County. The FBI began an investigation into Benton's death, during which Gray, Schmeltz, and Sheriff Telb made false statements to FBI agents to impede their investigation. Gray falsely stated that he observed Benton “breathing and moving after the chokehold.” Schmeltz denied to FBI agents that he saw Gray use a chokehold on Benton. Telb, who knew of all the events leading to Benton's death, denied to FBI agents that Gray used a chokehold on Benton, and made false statements to federal authorities. During the course of the federal investigation, the coroner declared Benton's death a homicide. Plaintiffs allege that the actions of Gray and Schmeltz in assaulting and strangling Benton were proximate causes of his death.

B. Procedural Background

Plaintiffs filed their original complaint against Lucas County and named Defendants in state court on December 9, 2008, asserting § 1983 violations of Benton's rights under the Fourth, Eighth, and/or Fourteenth Amendments and various state law claims. The case was removed to federal court. In the meantime, the United States Department of Justice filed criminal indictments against the individual defendants in the Northern District of Ohio. The Magistrate Judge stayed this case during the criminal proceedings.

A jury found Gray guilty of three counts, including deprivation of rights under color of law pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 242 for acting with deliberate indifference to Benton's serious medical needs, and two counts of falsifying documents in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1519. Gray was sentenced to 36 months of imprisonment, and his conviction and sentence were affirmed. United States v. Gray, 692 F.3d 514 (6th Cir.2012), cert. denied, ––– U.S. ––––, 133 S.Ct. 990, 184 L.Ed.2d 769 (2013).

A jury found Schmeltz guilty of one count of falsifying a document in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1519 for failing to mention his shove of Benton or Gray's use of a chokehold in the “Corrections Officer Report” documenting the events leading up to Benton's death. Schmeltz was sentenced to twelve months and one day's imprisonment. His conviction was affirmed. United States v. Schmeltz, 667 F.3d 685 (6th Cir.2011).

When the present case was reopened in October 2009, Gray, Schmeltz, and Telb filed motions for judgment on the pleadings and/or motions to dismiss, claiming qualified immunity and statutory immunity, among other defenses. The district court filed multiple orders granting the motions in part and denying them in part. Specifically, the district court denied Schmeltz's and Gray's motions as to the § 1983 claims of excessive force and failure to provide medical treatment on the grounds that they were not entitled to qualified immunity. The court also denied the motions of Schmeltz and Gray on the claim of assault and battery and Gray's motion as to the wrongful death claim, finding both ineligible for statutory immunity under Ohio Rev.Code § 2744.02. The court denied Telb qualified immunity on the claim that he failed to sufficiently train and supervise employees regarding the use of excessive force. Based on the state law claims against Schmeltz and Gray, the court also denied Telb's motion on liability imputed by virtue of Ohio Rev.Code § 311.05, which creates an exception from statutory immunity where a sheriff “ratifies the neglect of duty or misconduct in the office of the deputy.”

Gray, Schmeltz and Telb appeal the district court's denial of qualified immunity regarding Plaintiffs' excessive force and failure to train claims. Specifically, they argue that the district court employed the wrong standard—a Fourth Amendment...

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