The West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility authority v. Estate of Grove, 112020 WVSC, 18-1076

Docket Nº:18-1076, 18-1083
Opinion Judge:JENKINS JUSTICE.
Party Name:THE WEST VIRGINIA REGIONAL JAIL AND CORRECTIONAL FACILITY AUTHORITY, Defendant Below, Petitioner v. THE ESTATE OF CODY LAWRENCE GROVE, Plaintiff Below, Respondent AND JOSHUA DAVID ZOMBRO, Defendant Below, Petitioner v. THE ESTATE OF CODY LAWRENCE GROVE, Plaintiff Below, Respondent
Attorney:Matthew R. Whitler Anthony J. Delligatti Pullin, Fowler, Flanagan, Brown & Poe, PLLC Martinsburg, West Virginia Attorneys for the West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority James W. Marshall, III Bailey & Wyant, PLLC Martinsburg, West Virginia Michael W. Taylor Bailey & Wyant...
Case Date:November 20, 2020
Court:Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia

THE WEST VIRGINIA REGIONAL JAIL AND CORRECTIONAL FACILITY AUTHORITY, Defendant Below, Petitioner

v.

THE ESTATE OF CODY LAWRENCE GROVE, Plaintiff Below, Respondent

AND

JOSHUA DAVID ZOMBRO, Defendant Below, Petitioner

v.

THE ESTATE OF CODY LAWRENCE GROVE, Plaintiff Below, Respondent

Nos. 18-1076, 18-1083

Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia

November 20, 2020

Submitted: September 16, 2020

Appeals from the Circuit Court of Berkeley County The Honorable Laura V. Faircloth, Judge Civil Action No. 17-C-529

Matthew R. Whitler Anthony J. Delligatti Pullin, Fowler, Flanagan, Brown & Poe, PLLC Martinsburg, West Virginia Attorneys for the West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority

James W. Marshall, III Bailey & Wyant, PLLC Martinsburg, West Virginia Michael W. Taylor Bailey & Wyant, PLLC Charleston, West Virginia Attorneys for Joshua David Zombro

Paul G. Taylor Martinsburg, West Virginia Attorney for the Estate of Cody Lawrence Grove

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

1. "A circuit court's denial of a motion to dismiss that is predicated on qualified immunity is an interlocutory ruling which is subject to immediate appeal under the 'collateral order' doctrine." Syllabus point 1, West Virginia Board of Education v. Marple, 236 W.Va. 654, 783 S.E.2d 75 (2015).

2. "When a party . . . assigns as error a circuit court's denial of a motion to dismiss, the circuit court's disposition of the motion to dismiss will be reviewed de novo." Syllabus point 4, in part, Ewing v. Board of Education of County of Summers, 202 W.Va. 228, 503 S.E.2d 541 (1998).

3. "'In the absence of an insurance contract waiving the defense, the doctrine of qualified or official immunity bars a claim of mere negligence against a State agency not within the purview of the West Virginia Governmental Tort Claims and Insurance Reform Act, W.Va. Code § 29-12A-1 et seq., and against an officer of that department acting within the scope of his or her employment, with respect to the discretionary judgments, decisions, and actions of the officer.' Syl. Pt. 6, Clark v. Dunn, 195 W.Va. 272, 465 S.E.2d 374 (1995)." Syllabus point 7, West Virginia Regional Jail & Correctional Facility Authority v. A.B., 234 W.Va. 492, 766 S.E.2d 751 (2014).

4. "To the extent that governmental acts or omissions which give rise to a cause of action fall within the category of discretionary functions, a reviewing court must determine whether the plaintiff has demonstrated that such acts or omissions are in violation of clearly established statutory or constitutional rights or laws of which a reasonable person would have known or are otherwise fraudulent, malicious, or oppressive in accordance with State v. Chase Securities, Inc., 188 W.Va. 356, 424 S.E.2d 591 (1992). In [the] absence of such a showing, both the State and its officials or employees charged with such acts or omissions are immune from liability." Syllabus point 11, West Virginia Regional Jail & Correctional Facility Authority v. A.B., 234 W.Va. 492, 766 S.E.2d 751 (2014).

OPINION

JENKINS JUSTICE.

Petitioners, the West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority ("WVRJCA") and Joshua David Zombro ("Mr. Zombro") (collectively "Petitioners"), appeal the circuit court's November 19, 2018 orders denying their respective motions to dismiss Respondent's, the Estate of Cody Lawrence Grove ("the Estate"), amended complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. On appeal, Petitioners contend that the circuit court erred in failing to apply a heightened pleading standard for qualified immunity; failing to find both Petitioners are qualifiedly immune; failing to find the WVRJCA is a state agency; and failing to dismiss the claim against the WVRJCA for punitive damages. In contrast, the Estate asserts that the circuit court correctly applied a notice pleading standard; neither Petitioner is protected from suit by the qualified immunity doctrine under the facts of this case; and the issues of whether the WVRJCA is a state agency and subject to punitive damages are irrelevant and not properly before this Court.1

Upon careful review of the briefs, the appendix record, the arguments of the parties, and the applicable legal authority, we find that the circuit court erred by incorrectly failing to apply the heightened pleading standard applicable to cases implicating qualified immunity; failing to appropriately consider whether qualified immunity applied to shield Petitioners from suit; failing to determine whether the WVRJCA is a state agency; and failing to address punitive damages. Consequently, we reverse the November 19, 2018 orders of the circuit court and remand this case to the circuit court with instructions to consider the allegations of the amended complaint pursuant to the heightened pleading standard applicable to cases implicating qualified immunity; determine whether the claims against Petitioners are barred by the doctrine of qualified immunity; and ascertain whether punitive damages are applicable in this matter.

I.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

This appeal arises from the suicide of Cody Lawrence Groves ("Mr. Groves") on December 8, 2015, during his incarceration at the Eastern Regional Jail ("ERJ"), which is operated by the WVRJCA. On December 7, 2017, the Estate filed a complaint against the WVRJCA and Mr. Zombro, individually, and in his official capacity as a former correctional officer of the WVRJCA.2 The complaint alleges that, while he was incarcerated at the ERJ, Mr. Groves was on suicide watch, medical watch, or some other heightened watch and that the WVRJCA's and/or Mr. Zombro's failure to provide Mr. Groves with a reasonably safe confinement facility caused Mr. Groves' death. Moreover, while the complaint is wholly devoid of the factual circumstances surrounding Mr. Groves' death, the Estate contended that there was "[a] failure of staff to intervene on [Mr. Groves'] behalf" and that the WVRJCA negligently hired, trained, supervised, employed, and retained Mr. Zombro. Based on these limited allegations, the Estate asserted seven causes of action against the WVRJCA and/or Mr. Zombro: (1) deprivation of constitutional rights, (2) negligent supervision, (3) negligent training and retention, (4) negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, (5) general negligence, (6) wrongful death, and (7) injunctive relief.

Subsequently, on January 15, 2018, Mr. Zombro moved to dismiss the Estate's complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. In particular, Mr. Zombro argued that the complaint "contains no allegations of material facts regarding acts or omissions by [Mr.] Zombro to support a cause of action against him." He further contended that the complaint was "riddled with conclusory allegations and legal conclusions without any factual support[.]" Additionally, Mr. Zombro asserted that he was entitled to complete dismissal of all claims based on qualified immunity.3 Following Mr. Zombro's motion, the WVRJCA filed its own motion to dismiss the Estate's complaint on January 25, 2018. The WVRJCA moved to dismiss on numerous grounds, including lack of subject matter jurisdiction, improper venue, and failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Specifically, the WVRJCA asserted that the claims were barred by sovereign immunity, qualified immunity, lack of pre-suit notice, lack of standing to enjoin, and lack of sufficient facts to put it on notice of the claims asserted against it. In addition, the WVRJCA claimed that it was not subject to punitive damages and also argued for the dismissal of the Estate's state constitutional law claims.

The Estate opposed the motions to dismiss and also moved for leave to amend its original complaint to add PrimeCare Medical of West Virginia, Inc., as another defendant. On April 12, 2018, the circuit court issued an order granting the WVRJCA's motion to dismiss. The circuit court noted that its standards of review included the "heightened pleading standard," because this was a matter involving qualified immunity issues and the general West Virginia Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) standard of review. While the circuit court acknowledged that the WVRJCA's motion to dismiss raised numerous grounds, it further recognized that the issues of sovereign immunity, pre-suit notice to the State, and standing "are jurisdictional issues that must be decided prior to evaluating the sufficiency of the [c]omplaint." The circuit court found that "[d]espite [the Estate's] claim to the contrary, the [WVRJCA] is a state agency under the administration of the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. W.Va. Code § 5F-2-1(i)(10)[.]" The circuit court further found that the Estate had "failed to plead that an insurance policy of [the WVRJCA] covers any alleged damages, or that [the Estate] is only seeking damages up to the limits of that policy." Accordingly, the circuit court concluded that the WVRJCA was "immune from suit pursuant to Section 35, Article VI of the West Virginia Constitution." Furthermore, the circuit court ruled that, as a state agency, the WVRJCA was entitled to pre-suit notification pursuant to West Virginia Code section 55-17-3 and that the Estate had failed to demonstrate any compliance with the statutory pre-suit notice requirements. Therefore, the circuit court found that it was without jurisdiction and could not address the other grounds raised in the WVRJCA's motion to dismiss. The circuit court dismissed the complaint without prejudice as to the WVRJCA. On April 25, 2018, the circuit court granted the Estate's motion to amend the complaint.4

Following the circuit court's April 25th order, the Estate filed...

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