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Estate of Grubbs v. Weld County Sheriff's Office

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 8, 2017

ESTATE OF BARTON GRUBBS and TANYA SMITH, individually and as the personal representative of the Estate of Barton Grubbs, Plaintiffs,


          PHILIP A. BRIMMER United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants the Weld County Sheriff's Office and the Board of County Commissioners of the County of Weld's Motion to Dismiss the Third, Fourth and Fifth Claims for Relief of Plaintiffs' First Amended Complaint and Jury Demand [Docket No. 77] and Defendants Correct Care Solutions, LLC and Christin Hernandez's Partial Motion to Dismiss [Docket No. 78].

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         On March 28, 2014, Barton Grubbs committed suicide while in custody at the Weld County Jail. Docket No. 66 at 9, ¶ 47; 21, ¶ 186. The events leading to his death began on the evening of March 27, 2014 when Colorado State Trooper Travis Tyndall arrested Mr. Grubbs for driving under the influence. Docket No. 66 at 6-7, ¶¶ 17-21. After being handcuffed, Mr. Grubbs asked Trooper Tyndall to retrieve his pain medication. Id. at 7, ¶¶ 24, 26. Trooper Tyndall retrieved a bottle of Percocet and a bottle of Valium from Mr. Grubbs' car. Id., ¶ 26. Trooper Tyndall took Mr. Grubbs to a substation, where they were met by paramedics who confirmed that Mr. Grubbs' medication was in fact Percocet and Valium and permitted him to take one pill of each. Id., ¶¶ 27-31. Trooper Tyndall told Mr. Grubbs to put his medication in Grubbs' inside coat pocket. Id. at 8, ¶ 34. Trooper Tyndall then took Mr. Grubbs to the Weld County Jail for booking. Id., ¶ 35. While Trooper Tyndall was filling out paperwork, Mr. Grubbs surreptitiously swallowed all but one of his remaining pills. Id. at 8-9, ¶¶ 45-47, 58. During the booking process, Officer Eric Sutherland searched Mr. Grubbs and found the pill bottles. Id. at 9, ¶ 57. Officer Sutherland contacted medical staff, and Licensed Practical Nurse (“LPN”) Christin Hernandez responded. Id. at 10, ¶¶ 59, 61. Nurse Hernandez was an employee of Correct Care Solutions, LLC (“CCS”), which contracts with the Weld County defendants to provide healthcare services, including medical and mental health, for the Weld County Jail. Id. at 5, ¶¶ 13-14. Nurse Hernandez examined Mr. Grubbs' pill bottles and stated she would put them into “property.” Id. at 10, ¶¶ 62-63. Trooper Tyndall told Officer Sutherland and Nurse Hernandez that it was possible that some of the pills were missing. Id., ¶ 65. At the request of Officer Sutherland, Nurse Hernandez took Mr. Grubbs' vital signs, which were normal. Id. at 10-11, ¶¶ 66, 75-76.

         Officer Sutherland asked Mr. Grubbs if he would tell jail staff members if he were suicidal; Mr. Grubbs stated that he would not. Id. at 11, ¶¶ 77-78. As a result, Officer Sutherland scheduled a suicide “staffing” for Mr. Grubbs. Id., ¶ 79. A staffing is a formal suicide evaluation conducted by medical staff and corrections officers. Id., ¶ 80. Officer Jennifer Linderlink and Nurse Hernandez conducted the suicide staffing. Id. at 12, ¶ 87. During the interview, Officer Linderlink asked Mr. Grubbs if he had taken any pills; Mr. Grubbs responded that he had taken around 70 Valium while waiting in the booking vestibule. Id. at 13-14, ¶¶ 99-103. Nurse Hernandez spoke with her supervisor to inquire about what she should do as a result of Mr. Grubbs' statements. Id. at 14, ¶ 104. Nurse Hernandez's supervisor told her to obtain information regarding Mr. Grubbs' prescriptions and call the provider to inquire as to methods to counteract the effect of the pills Mr. Grubbs had taken. Id., ¶ 105. Nurse Hernandez checked the prescription levels on Mr. Grubbs' medication bottles, but did not call the provider about drugs to help Mr. Grubbs. Id., ¶¶ 107-08. Nurse Hernandez asked Officer Sutherland whether it would be possible to review footage from cameras overlooking the booking area, but neither Nurse Hernandez nor Officer Linderlink requested the tape, which did in fact show Mr. Grubbs consuming the medication. Id. at 15, ¶¶ 110-12.

         At that time Officer Linderlink had Nurse Hernandez check Mr. Grubbs' vitals again, which she recorded as abnormal. Id., ¶¶ 115-17. Mr. Grubbs was transported to a housing unit and placed on suicide watch level one. Id., ¶ 119. Corrections officers are supposed to observe an inmate on suicide watch level one at no more than five minute intervals. Id. at 30, ¶ 248. Nurse Hernandez requested a medical screening for Mr. Grubbs, but none was conducted. Id. at 16, ¶¶ 125-26. Mr. Grubbs was placed in his cell at around 5:00 a.m. and given a suicide watch gown. Id. at 17-18, ¶¶ 139-42. Officer Lamb checked on Mr. Grubbs approximately an hour and fifteen minutes after he was placed in his cell. Id. at 18, ¶¶ 143-44. Officer Steven MacCreery also conducted walkthroughs during the early morning and observed Mr. Grubbs' foot twitching on at least one occasion. Id., ¶¶ 148-150. Sometime after 8:00 a.m., three officers entered Mr. Grubbs' cell to relocate him. Id. at 19, ¶ 155. Mr. Grubbs never spoke or responded to the officers in any way. Id. at 19-20, ¶¶ 157-160, 171. Medical staff and paramedics were called, and Mr. Grubbs was transported to Northern Colorado Medical Center, where it was determined that Mr. Grubbs had no brain activity. Id. at 20, ¶¶ 172-75. Later that day Mr. Grubbs died, never having regained consciousness. Id. at 21, ¶ 186. The cause of death on his autopsy report was medication overdose. Id.

         On March 25, 2016, his estate and personal representative filed this lawsuit seeking damages arising from Mr. Grubbs' death. Docket No. 1. On July 26, 2016, plaintiffs filed an amended complaint alleging six claims for relief pursuant to: (1) Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-21-202 for death by negligence; (2) Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-20-101 for expenses related to Mr. Grubbs' death; (3) 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for deliberate indifference to medical needs; (4) 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for adoption of an official policy; (5) 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for failure to adequately train or supervise; and (6) common law negligence. Docket No. 66.

         Defendants Weld County Sheriff's Office and Board of County Commissioners of the County of Weld (collectively “Weld County defendants”) have moved to dismiss plaintiffs' third, fourth, and fifth claims for relief. Docket No. 77. Defendants CCS and Christin Hernandez have moved to dismiss plaintiffs' third claim for relief against defendants CCS and Hernandez and plaintiffs' sixth claim for relief against defendant Hernandez. Docket No. 78.


         To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint must allege enough factual matter that, taken as true, makes the plaintiffs' “claim to relief . . . plausible on its face.” Bryson v. Gonzales, 534 F.3d 1282, 1286 (10th Cir. 2008) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged - but it has not shown - that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009) (internal quotation marks and alteration marks omitted). Thus, even though modern rules of pleading are somewhat forgiving, “a complaint still must contain either direct or inferential allegations respecting all the material elements necessary to sustain a recovery under some viable legal theory.” Bryson, 534 F.3d at 1286 (alteration marks omitted).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Local governments may not be sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on a theory of respondeat superior. Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of N.Y., 436 U.S. 658, 692 (1978). Instead, local governing bodies can be sued directly only where “the action that is alleged to be unconstitutional implements or executes a policy statement, ordinance, regulation, or decision officially adopted and promulgated by that body's officers.” Id. at 690 (footnote omitted). “[I]t is when execution of a government's policy or custom, whether made by its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy, inflicts the injury that the government as an entity is responsible under § 1983.” Id. at 694.

         In order to state a claim for municipal liability under § 1983 for the actions of a municipal employee, a party must allege sufficient facts to demonstrate that it is plausible (1) that the municipal employee committed a constitutional violation; and (2) that a municipal policy or custom was the moving force behind the constitutional deprivation. Jiron v. City of Lakewood, 392 F.3d 410, 419 (10th Cir. 2004). The plaintiff must further show that “the policy was enacted or maintained with deliberate indifference to an almost inevitable constitutional injury.” Schneider v. City of Grand Junction Police Dep't, 717 F.3d 760, 769 (10th Cir. 2013). “The deliberate indifference standard may be satisfied when the municipality has actual or constructive notice that its action or failure to act is substantially certain to result in a constitutional violation, and it consciously or deliberately chooses to disregard the risk of harm.” Barney v. Pulsipher, 143 F.3d 1299, 1307 (10th Cir. 1998) (citation omitted). A municipal policy or custom can take the form of “(1) a formal regulation or policy statement; (2) an informal custom amoun[ting] to a widespread practice that, although not authorized by written law or express municipal policy, is so permanent and well settled as to constitute a custom or usage with the force of law; (3) the decisions of employees with final policymaking authority; (4) the ratification by such final policymakers of the decisions - and the basis for them - of subordinates to whom authority was delegated subject to these policymakers' review and approval; or (5) the failure to adequately train or supervise employees, so long as that failure results from ‘deliberate indifference' to the injuries that may be caused.” Bryson v. City of Oklahoma City, 627 F.3d 784, 788 (10th Cir. 2010) (citations omitted).

         With this background in mind, the Court considers whether dismissal of the challenged claims is appropriate.

         A. Plaintiffs' Third Claim for Relief - Deliberate Indifference to Medical Needs

         “Under the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause, pretrial detainees are entitled to the same degree of protection against denial of medical care as that afforded to convicted inmates under the Eighth Amendment.” Estate of Hocker by Hocker v. Walsh, 22 F.3d 995, 998 (10th Cir. 1994). To bring a claim for deliberate medical indifference against an institution, plaintiff must allege “such gross deficiencies in staffing, facilities, equipment, or procedures that the inmate is effectively denied access to adequate medical care.” See Garcia v. Salt Lake Cty., 768 F.2d 303, 308 (10th Cir. 1985) (citing Ramos v. Lamm, 639 F.2d 559, 575 (10th Cir. 1980)). To bring a claim for deliberate indifference to medical needs against an individual, a plaintiff must allege: “(i) that he suffered from a serious medical need - that is, one that has been diagnosed by a medical provider as requiring treatment or one which even a lay person would easily recognize as requiring medical attention; and (ii) the Defendant was subjectively aware of that need and that failing to treat it would pose an excessive risk to the inmate's health or safety, but nevertheless elected to delay or deny treatment for it.” Ajaj v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, No. 08-cv-02006-MSK-MJW, 2011 WL 902440, at *16 (D. Colo. Mar. 10, 2011) (citing Sealock v. Colorado, 218 F.3d 1205, 1209 (10th Cir. 2000)). The first prong is examined objectively, while the second is examined subjectively and takes into account whether a prison official “knows of and disregards an excessive risk to inmate health or safety.” Sealock, 218 F.3d at 1209 (quoting Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 837 (1994)).

         1. Weld County Defendants

         The Weld County defendants argue that plaintiffs' third claim for relief presents mere boilerplate recitations of the elements of deliberate indifference and, moreover, that plaintiffs' allegation that Weld County had a policy of deferring to medical staff on admittance decisions demonstrates that the Weld County defendants were unable to provide medical care to Mr. Grubbs. Docket No. 77 at 4. Plaintiffs respond by arguing that the agreement between the Weld County defendants and CCS has a built-in deliberate indifference in healthcare standards for inmates by defining one standard for emergency medical services for visitors and employees and another standard for detainees and inmates. Docket No. 81 at 3-4.

         The allegations in the amended complaint, however, demonstrate that the Weld County defendants' policy did not effectively deny Mr. Grubbs access to a hospital. According to plaintiffs, despite the different standards of care for inmates and visitors, “three other prisoners were had [sic] already been taken to the hospital” on the same evening Mr. Grubbs was admitted. Docket No. 66 at 17, ¶ 131. Plaintiffs state that, because these other inmates were taken to the hospital, Mr. Grubbs was not. Id. However, the policy identified by plaintiffs does not limit the number of individuals to be taken to the hospital and the amended complaint confirms that Mr. Grubbs could have been taken to the hospital had the medical staff determined it was ...

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