Peart v. Seneca Cnty.

Decision Date18 August 2011
Docket NumberCase No. 3:09CV1258.
Citation808 F.Supp.2d 1028
PartiesAnthony PEART, Plaintiff v. SENECA COUNTY, et al., Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Ohio


Michael I. Shapero, David S. Michel, James A. Marx, Shapero & Green, Beachwood, OH, for Plaintiff.

Mark D. Landes, Adam J. Hensel, Brandi L. Dorgan, Isaac, Brant, Ledman & Teetor, Columbus, OH, for Defendants.


JAMES G. CARR, Senior District Judge.

This suit arises from an unprovoked assault on the plaintiff, Anthony Peart, by co-defendant Larry White while both were inmates at the Seneca County, Ohio, Jail. Peart brings this suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.1 He also asserts state law claims for negligence and violation of O.R.C. § 2921.44.

Seneca County, its former Sheriff, Thomas Steyer, and its Commissioners, Benjamin Nutter, David Sauber, Sr., and Michael Bridinger, have filed a motion for summary judgment. [Doc. 39]. For the reasons that follow, the motion shall be granted in part and denied in part.


Following Peart's arrest and conviction on a charge of falsification, authorities determined that he was an alien and not lawfully in this country. Officers from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) took him into custody and lodged him in the Seneca County Jail in May, 2008.

The jail houses immigration detainees pursuant to a contract with ICE. The contract requires booking officials to collect objective criteria ( e.g., criminal history, disciplinary history, and current charge), tally a score based on this information, and assign detainees a security level according to the score. The contract requires low and high security detainees to be separated. [Doc. 47–2 at 18].

Seneca County Jail had classification forms consistent with the ICE standards for booking.

On Peart's booking into the jail, Officer Cover did not complete a classification form. He did not investigate Peart's criminal history or disciplinary history. He placed Peart in a block housing both regular jail detainees and ICE detainees.

Likewise, when officers placed his assailant, White, in custody in the jail, Officer Stafford made no attempt to classify him. White had been an inmate in the past and had made documented threats to inmates and officers. White's criminal history included incidents of violence.

White had never previously been assaultive while in the Seneca County Jail. Jail officials had, however, previously housed him in the block reserved for violent offenders. Two internal reports indicate White's “violent behavior” caused officers to use tasers to subdue him. [Doc 47–3 at 83, 85]. Sheriff Steyer states that he “personally observed” White threatening individuals and “constantly” received reports about his behavior. [Doc. 47–3 at 108]. White bragged to jail officials that he was the “baddest dude in here” making “a living knocking people down.” [Doc. 47–3 at 101, 110].

It is apparent that Officer Stafford either did not know or did not care about White's record of violent propensities when he assigned him to the same block as Peart. In any event, Officer Stafford failed to follow the jail's risk assessment procedures when booking White.

On June 10, 2008, Peart was watching television in the common area when he began to argue with another inmate, Matt Peace. White walked out of his cell, confronted and hit Peart, who fell to the cement floor, striking his head and losing consciousness. Among other injuries, he sustained a skull fracture and brain hemorrhaging.

Peart filed suit in the Seneca County Court of Common Pleas on May 5, 2009. The defendants removed the case to this court on June 2, 2009. Defendants seek summary judgment as to all claims.

Standard of Review

A party is entitled to summary judgment on motion under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 where the opposing party fails to show the existence of an essential element for which that party bears the burden of proof. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). The movant must initially show the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548.

Once the movant meets that initial burden, the “burden shifts to the nonmoving party [to] set forth specific facts showing there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). Rule 56(e) “requires the nonmoving party to go beyond the [unverified] pleading” and submit admissible evidence supporting its position. Celotex, supra, 477 U.S. at 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548.

In deciding a motion for summary judgment, I accept the opponent's evidence as true and construe all evidence in the opponent's favor. Eastman Kodak Co. v. Image Tech. Servs. Inc., 504 U.S. 451, 456, 112 S.Ct. 2072, 119 L.Ed.2d 265 (1992). The movant can prevail only if the materials offered in support of the motion show there is no genuine issue of material fact. Celotex, supra, 477 U.S. at 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548.


In support of their request for summary judgment, defendants argue that Seneca County is not a proper party to this action. Defendants also claim that Peart's § 1983 claim fails both because Peart cannot demonstrate that defendants were deliberately indifferent to a substantial risk of harm, and because Peart has not shown a policy or practice caused the deprivation of his rights. Defendants contend that Sheriff Steyer and the County Commissioners are entitled to qualified immunity for claims against them in their individual capacity. Finally, defendants argue that they are entitled to immunity for Peart's state law claims.

Apart from their initial argument that Seneca County is not a proper party, the crux of defendants' summary judgment motion is that White's attack on Peart was random and unforeseeable. The attack certainly was random. And it's fair to contend that none of the defendants specifically anticipated that White would attack Peart.

But that's not the issue. The issue is, rather, whether complete abandonment of any effort to classify inmates, so that there is no reasonable attempt to segregate the violence-prone, or even mentally unstable and unpredictable from non-violent inmates, constitutes constitutionally cognizable deliberate indifference.

For the reasons that follow, I conclude that a jury could find that it does. I also conclude that a jury could find that non-classification was an official policy, so that vicarious liability can attach. Finally, I conclude that the duty to take reasonable and available steps to ensure inmate safety from violent attacks is so well established that the defendants are not entitled to immunity.

A. Seneca County Is a Proper Defendant

Defendants argue that Seneca County must be dismissed as a defendant because it lacks the capacity to be sued. An entity's capacity to be sued in federal court is determined by state law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 17(b). Under Ohio law, counties adopting a charter or alternative form of government are “capable of suing or being sued.” O.R.C. § 301.22. Thus, defendants argue, counties not adopting a charter are non sui juris.

There is no question that a municipality or other local government body, such as Seneca County, becomes a “person” subject to suit under § 1983 when implementing an unconstitutional policy or custom.2 Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 690–91, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978); 42 U.S.C. § 1983. But defendants argue that the questions of capacity and immunity are distinct.

The question before me is whether the county's lack of capacity to sue or be sued under Ohio law precludes its amenability to a § 1983 claim pursuant to Monell. As Judge Frost of the Southern District of Ohio observed, the Sixth Circuit has yet to address this issue directly, and the federal district courts have dealt with it inconsistently. Stack v. Karnes, 750 F.Supp.2d 892, 894–95 (S.D.Ohio 2010) (collecting cases).

Defendants argue that I should follow those district courts holding “counties, as political entities, are not sui juris; they are held accountable through their elected representatives, to wit, their commissioners.” McGuire v. Ameritech Servs., Inc., 253 F.Supp.2d 988, 1015 (S.D.Ohio 2003). Ohio law provides that a county's board of commissioners is able to sue and to be sued. R.C. § 305.12.

But as the other courts have pointed out, the rationale underpinning counties' lack of capacity under Ohio law is “not conceptually distinct from the question of the entity's sovereign immunity as an arm of the state.” Turner v. Toledo, 671 F.Supp.2d 967, 971 (N.D.Ohio 2009). Ohio courts have treated the question of a county's capacity to be sued as turning on the extent to which a county is an instrumentality of the state. State ex rel. Ranz v. Youngstown, 140 Ohio St. 477, 483, 45 N.E.2d 767 (1942) (comparing counties to municipal corporations, which are not “superimposed by a sovereign and paramount authority”). Defendants assert that Ohio counties thus lack capacity for the same reason counties in the past asserted sovereign immunity—Ohio law treats them as an arm of the state.

But the Supreme Court has held that a political subdivision is not the State and cannot enjoy sovereign immunity from a § 1983 suit. Mt. Healthy City Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 280–81, 97 S.Ct. 568, 50 L.Ed.2d 471 (1977). Thus, “a governmental entity's status under state law is not conclusive of whether that entity may be sued under federal law, though state law does provide evidence of whether a given entity is, in fact, the State.’ Turner, supra, 671 F.Supp.2d at 972.

Moreover, in the special context of § 1983 actions, “a state law that immunizes government conduct otherwise subject to suit under 1983 is pre-empted ... because the application of state immunity law would thwart the congressional remedy.” Felder v. Casey, 487 U.S. 131, 139, 108 S.Ct....

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