Letterman v. Doe

Decision Date16 June 2015
Docket NumberNo. 14–1571.,14–1571.
Citation789 F.3d 856
PartiesJimmy Lee LETTERMAN; Annette Fay Letterman, Plaintiffs–Appellees v. Jon DOES, individually, and in their official capacities; Steven Lammers; Noreen Gastineau, Defendants. Jerry Farnsworth; Bryan Earls; Marcia Jennings, Defendants–Appellants.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit

H. Anthony Relys, Asst. Atty. Gen., St. Louis, MO, argued (Chris Koster, Atty. Gen., Jefferson City, MO, on the brief), for appellants.

Aristotle N. Rodopoulos, Wood Law Firm, LLC, St. Louis, MO, argued (Noah K. Wood, on the brief), for appellees.

Before LOKEN, MURPHY, and MELLOY, Circuit Judges.

Opinion

MELLOY, Circuit Judge.

Three days after leaving a Missouri jail, Danial Letterman passed away from injuries he suffered in his cell. His parents sued a number of prison employees under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming, among other things, that prison employees were deliberately indifferent to Danial's medical needs. Three defendants moved for summary judgment on the deliberate indifference claims, asserting qualified immunity. The district court denied summary judgment as to all three defendants. We affirm in part and reverse in part.

I

Because this is an appeal from a denial of qualified immunity, the court must construe the facts in the light most favorable to the Lettermans as the nonmoving party. See Jones v. McNeese, 746 F.3d 887, 894 (8th Cir.2014).

Danial Letterman received a 120–day “shock” sentence after police found him possessing marijuana. He was transferred to the Missouri Western Reception, Diagnostic and Correction Center in November 2011. Within a week of transfer, Danial was experiencing mental health problems, and psychologists recommended he be placed on suicide watch. Prison staff placed Danial in the transitional care unit (TCU), the prison's “hospital” ward.

On November 17, Danial became manic. He beat his hand on the wall of his concrete cell, repeatedly kicked the door, and, according to some rumors, beat his head against the wall. The same day, Lieutenant Bryan Earls, complying with a request from mental health personnel, put together a five-person extraction team to move Danial from his concrete cell to a padded cell. The padded cell was reserved for only the most seriously mentally affected prisoners, generally those who would try to injure themselves or others. Due to the circumstances surrounding Danial's move, prison policy required multiple officers be present before opening the padded cell.

After the team moved Danial, he remained in a manic state. Danial was placed on suicide watch. Prison employees knew he was under the highest level of observation, requiring in-person checks four times an hour according to prison policy. During these checks, employees were supposed to receive an affirmative response from Danial. Employees were also required to log their observations. If a prisoner did not respond, a different prison policy required the employee to notify “central command.”

Correctional officer Steven Lammers1 began his shift at 11:00 p.m. on November 17. His supervisor briefed him that a five-person extraction team had placed Danial in the padded cell. Lammers was responsible for the in-person checks during his shift. Rather than complying with prison policy, however, Lammers merely viewed Danial through a monitor. Lammers initially saw Danial stumbling around the cell and mumbling to himself.

Around 11:26 p.m. on November 17, Danial fell backwards in the padded cell and hit his head against a wall. Danial slid down the wall and remained in a sitting position for a while. About twenty minutes later, he fell backward again and hit his head on the door jamb. Lammers heard a loud thud and went to check on Danial in person. Danial told Lammers that he injured his head

and needed medical attention. Lammers spoke with a nurse, but neither he nor the nurse opened the cell door. Lammers obtained no additional responses from Danial during the rest of Lammers's shift.

Noreen Gastineau,2 another correctional officer, took over for Lammers at 7:30 a.m. on November 18. Lammers told Gastineau that Danial had fallen very hard around midnight and had not moved. Lammers also told a nurse, Brett Hook, about Danial when Hook began her shift at 7:00 a.m.

A little before 9:00 a.m., a psychologist came to check on Danial. The psychologist told Gastineau that Danial needed to be awoken. Gastineau and Nurse Hook kicked Danial's door and struck it with keys. Gastineau even splashed water on Danial's face through an opening in the cell door. Danial responded merely by moving his eyes “slightly” and groaning. At some point, the psychologist asked that Danial's cell be opened, but Gastineau told the psychologist no.

Nurse Hook told Gastineau that she needed to get the door to the padded cell open so she could perform a check on Danial. Around 10:40 a.m., Gastineau called Sergeant Jerry Farnsworth to obtain permission to open Danial's cell. Farnsworth was in charge of the unit and was responsible for the well-being of all prisoners in the unit. During the call, Gastineau told Farnsworth that Danial had not moved since the beginning of her shift at 7:30 a.m. and had refused lunch. Gastineau also told Farnsworth that medical personnel had requested that the door be opened. Despite being aware that medical personnel generally ask to open the padded cell only in the case of emergency or potential emergency, Farnsworth responded that he was supervising lunch and did not have correctional personnel available to open the padded cell. Gastineau hung up without saying anything else. Farnsworth did not go to the TCU nor did he follow up with Gastineau or any other prison personnel.

Gastineau and Nurse Hook did not inform anyone else of Danial's condition until Earls entered the TCU around noon. On that day, Earls was the Lieutenant in charge and acting assistant shift commander. Gastineau told Earls that Danial had been laying in one spot all day and that she had made several unsuccessful attempts to get a response from Danial. Nurse Hook asked Earls to open the cell so she could get Danial's vitals. Nurse Hook also told Earls that she and Gastineau could not wake Danial and that Danial “had been in the same position since Hook began her shift.” In addition to this information, Earls had been informed at a meeting earlier that morning that mental health's request for the move the night before was in part because Danial had been banging his head against a concrete floor. Despite knowing that prisoners are placed in the padded cell only when they have serious mental-health issues and nurses generally do not ask the guards to open the padded cell absent a potential emergency, Earls responded, “let sleeping dogs lie” and refused to open Danial's cell.

Danial continued to lay in his cell without any prison official opening the door. At noon, Marcia Jennings, a case manager who was assigned to the Administrative Segregation Unit, a larger unit of the prison containing the TCU, became the acting functional unit manager. In this role, Jennings was responsible for classifying and overseeing the classification of all prisoners in the administrative segregation unit. Her duties did not touch on security or medical issues. She focused solely on the status of inmates. At 2:00 p.m., she went to the TCU to write in Danial's log. She knew Danial was banging his head in the concrete cell previously, so she was a bit concerned. She encountered Gastineau near Danial's cell and asked Gastineau about Danial. Gastineau responded that Danial had not moved and had refused meals. Gastineau also told Jennings nurses had stated Danial was okay so long as he was breathing. Jennings knew she could call a “Code 16,” which would denote a medical emergency and would allow the medical team to take over and open Danial's cell even without correctional personnel. Jennings did not call a Code 16. Instead, she went back to her office and began making phone calls to determine how to proceed in light of her concerns about Danial. Before Jennings was able to make contact with any of her supervisors, a lieutenant called her to ask whether a team could open Danial's cell.

When the team reached Danial's cell, Nurse Hook recognized that Danial needed immediate medical attention. His temperature was below 90 degrees, his pulse was somewhere between 30 and 34 beats per minute, and his eyes were fixed and dilated. An ambulance took Danial to the hospital, and doctors pronounced him dead three days later.

Numerous doctors reviewed Danial's case and determined the cause of his death was a subdural hematoma

caused by the falls in his cell. One doctor remarked that the fall would have caused Danial to become unconscious and that any lay person would have recognized the injury was serious in nature. Each moment that passed without medical attention increased Danial's chance of injury and death.

Danial's parents sued various prison employees under section 1983, citing violations of Danial's Eighth Amendment rights.3 The Lettermans dismissed a number of defendants, leaving only Lammers, Gastineau, Farnsworth, Earls, and Jennings.

Relevant to this appeal, Farnsworth, Earls, and Jennings moved for summary judgment on the Lettermans' deliberate indifference claims, asserting qualified immunity. The district court found that, at a minimum, the Lettermans had presented evidence from which a jury could find that the defendants knew of a substantial risk of serious harm and deliberately disregarded that risk. Those three defendants appeal.

II

We review the district court's denial of summary judgment de novo. Jones v. McNeese, 746 F.3d 887, 894 (8th Cir.2014). To survive a challenge based on qualified immunity, a plaintiff must show the defendants violated a person's constitutional right and the constitutional right was clearly established at the time of the violation. Id. The parties agree that a prison official who is deliberately indifferent...

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