Palakovic v. Wetzel, 041417 FED3, 16-2726

Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
Attorney:Bret Grote [ARGUED]Abolitionist Law Center, Michael J. Healey Healey & Hornack, Counsel for Appellants. Howard G. Hopkirk [ARGUED] Office of Attorney General of Pennsylvania, Counsel for Corrections Officials Appellees Alan S. Baum Cassidy L. Neal [ARGUED] Matis Baum & O'Connor, Counsel for Appel...
Judge Panel:Before: SMITH, Chief Judge, JORDAN, and SHWARTZ, Circuit Judges.
Opinion Judge:SMITH, Chief Judge.
Party Name:RENEE PALAKOVIC, as Administrator of the Estate of Brandon Palakovic; DARIAN PALAKOVIC, as Administrator of the Estate of Brandon Palakovic, Appellants v. JOHN WETZEL; KENNETH CAMERON; JAMIE BOYLES; JAMEY LUTHER; DR. JAMES HARRINGTON; DR. DALEEP RATHORE; MICHELLE HOUSER; MORRIS HOUSER; FRANCIS PIROZZOLA; JOHN DOES #1, #2; JOHN DOES # 3-6; MHM I...
Case Date:April 14, 2017
Docket Nº:16-2726
 
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RENEE PALAKOVIC, as Administrator of the Estate of Brandon Palakovic; DARIAN PALAKOVIC, as Administrator of the Estate of Brandon Palakovic, Appellants

v.

JOHN WETZEL; KENNETH CAMERON; JAMIE BOYLES; JAMEY LUTHER; DR. JAMES HARRINGTON; DR. DALEEP RATHORE; MICHELLE HOUSER; MORRIS HOUSER; FRANCIS PIROZZOLA; JOHN DOES #1, #2; JOHN DOES # 3-6; MHM INC; DR. CAROL EIDSVOOG; HEARING EXAMINER ROBERT REED; CORRECTIONAL OFFICER KUSHNER; SERGEANT DOUS

No. 16-2726

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

April 14, 2017

          Argued January 12, 2017

         On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania District Court No. 3-14-cv-00145 District Judge: Honorable Kim R. Gibson

          Bret Grote [ARGUED]Abolitionist Law Center, Michael J. Healey Healey & Hornack, Counsel for Appellants.

          Howard G. Hopkirk [ARGUED] Office of Attorney General of Pennsylvania, Counsel for Corrections Officials Appellees

          Alan S. Baum Cassidy L. Neal [ARGUED] Matis Baum & O'Connor, Counsel for Appellees Dr. Daleep Rathore, Dr. Carol Eidsvoog, and MHM, Inc.

          Witold J. Walczak American Civil Liberties Union, Counsel for Amicus Appellants

          Before: SMITH, Chief Judge, JORDAN, and SHWARTZ, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          SMITH, Chief Judge.

         Brandon Palakovic, a mentally ill young man who was imprisoned at the State Correctional Institution at Cresson, Pennsylvania (SCI Cresson), committed suicide after repeatedly being placed in solitary confinement. His parents, Renee and Darian Palakovic, brought this civil rights action after their son's death. The District Court dismissed the family's Eighth Amendment claims against prison officials and medical personnel for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. We write today to clarify and elaborate upon the legal principles that apply to Eighth Amendment claims arising out of prison suicides. For the reasons that follow, we will vacate the District Court's dismissals.

         I.

         The following allegations appear in the amended complaint.1 Brandon Palakovic2 was convicted of burglarizing an occupied structure in Perry County, Pennsylvania, and was sentenced by the state court to a term of 16-48 months' imprisonment. In April 2011, he arrived at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, Pennsylvania (SCI Camp Hill), for processing and classification. Those procedures included a mental health screening.

         Brandon informed SCI Camp Hill mental health staff that he had attempted suicide in the past and had engaged in self-harm as recently as August 2010. He also advised staff that he experienced periodic thoughts of self-harm and suicide, and that he had made plans about how to kill himself. Brandon was diagnosed with a number of serious mental disorders, including alcohol dependence, anti-social personality disorder, and impulse control disorder. He was identified as a "suicide behavior risk, " J.A. 65[3], and was classified as "Stability Rating D, " signifying "a substantial disturbance of thought or mood which significantly impairs judgment, behavior, capacity to recognize reality, or cope with the ordinary demands of life, " J.A. 66. It is the lowest stability rating given a prisoner in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) system. He was, accordingly, placed on the prison mental health roster.

         Brandon was transferred to SCI Cresson in June 2011. During his incarceration at SCI Cresson, he reported feeling depressed, exhibited signs of depression, and acknowledged suicidal thoughts and a wish to die. His nickname within the prison became "Suicide." Yet no comprehensive suicide risk assessment was performed. Brandon did not receive psychological counseling, drug and alcohol counseling, group therapy, or interviews in clinically appropriate settings; any mental health interviews were conducted "through the cell door slot in the solitary confinement unit." J.A. 82.

         According to the amended complaint, mental healthcare at SCI Cresson was seriously deficient in many respects. Specifically, the amended complaint alleged that SCI Cresson had insufficient psychiatric staff, failed to ensure adequate frequency of mental health appointments, failed to provide proper oversight of medication regimes, kept poor medical records, and did not train staff on the proper response to prisoners with mental illness. In addition, it was allegedly the practice at SCI Cresson that medications to treat mental illness were inadequately monitored for effectiveness and were used as a substitute for other, more effective treatments.

         The amended complaint further alleged that SCI Cresson's practice for dealing with mentally ill prisoners like Brandon was to relegate them to solitary confinement. This meant that because of Brandon's particular mental illnesses and lack of proper treatment, his behavior was "going to continually land him in solitary confinement unless there was an intervention on his behalf." J.A. 85. Therefore, over the course of his thirteen months at SCI Cresson, Brandon "was repeatedly subjected to solitary confinement via placement in the prison's Restricted Housing Unit (RHU), characterized by extreme deprivations of social interaction and environmental stimulation, abusive staff, and inadequate to non-existent mental health care."[4] J.A. 68 (footnote omitted).

         During his "multiple 30-day stints in solitary confinement, " J.A. 69, Brandon was exposed to extreme and trying conditions. He was isolated for approximately 23 to 24 hours each day, in a tiny cement cell of less than 100 square feet with only small slit windows affording him minimal outside visibility. He was not permitted to make phone calls, his possessions were limited to one small box, and his social interaction and environmental stimulation were severely reduced. Brandon was permitted just one hour of exercise five days out of each week, which took place in an outdoor cage only slightly larger than his cell.

         According to the amended complaint, prison officials were aware that exposure to these conditions carried mental health risks. The majority of incidents of self-harm at SCI Cresson-including suicides and suicide attempts-took place in solitary confinement. In 2011, 14 of the 17 documented suicide attempts (more than 80%) occurred in the prison's solitary confinement units. There also were "dozens of incidents" in which prisoners on the mental health roster engaged in self-harm, "while just two such incidents occurred in the general population." J.A. 78-79.

         Notably, during Brandon's incarceration, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it would be undertaking an investigation into "allegations that SCI Cresson provided inadequate mental health care to prisoners who have mental illness, failed to adequately protect such prisoners from harm, and subjected them to excessively prolonged periods of isolation, in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution." J.A. 77. As part of that investigation, the DOJ conducted a site visit from March 19 to 22, 2012-also while Brandon was incarcerated- during which it interviewed administrative staff, medical staff, and prisoners. That investigation, as described in a report issued on May 31, 2013 (the "DOJ Report"), revealed "a wide array of policies and practices that were responsible for systemic deficiencies in SCI Cresson's treatment of mentally ill and intellectually disabled prisoners." J.A. 79; Department of Justice May 31, 2013 Findings Letter, https:// www.justice.gov/sites/ default/files/crt/legacy/2013/06/03/cresson_findings_5-31-13.pdf (last visited April 4, 2017).

         Among other things, the DOJ reported a "system-wide failure of security staff to consider mental health issues appropriately, " a "fragmented and ineffective" mental healthcare program, insufficient mental healthcare staffing to meet the prison population's needs, "[p]oor screening and diagnostic procedures, " poor recordkeeping "contributing to a dysfunctional system that undermined continuity of care, " "[d]eficient oversight mechanisms, including the failure to collect necessary information on critical incidents, such as acts of self-harm, " and a lack of training in the proper response to warning signs by prisoners with serious mental illness. J.A. 79-80 (citing DOJ Report). Although Brandon was incarcerated at SCI Cresson while the DOJ conducted its investigation, he died before it issued its Report.

         Brandon committed suicide on July 16, 2012, while in solitary confinement. He was 23 years old.

         II.

         As executors of their son's estate, Brandon's parents filed a five-count civil rights complaint on July 9, 2014 in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, naming a number of prison officials and mental healthcare providers.5 In that complaint, the Palakovics ...

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