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Estate of Vallina v. County of Teller Sherriff's Office

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 28, 2017

THE ESTATE OF ROBERT VALLINA; JUAN J. VALLINA, personally; and MARTHA VALLINA, personally and as personal representative of the Estate of Robert Vallina, deceased; Plaintiffs,
THE COUNTY OF TELLER SHERIFF'S OFFICE and its DETENTION FACILITY; SHERIFF MIKE ENSMINGER, in his official capacity; DEPUTY IAN CHRISTIANSEN, in his official capacity; DEPUTY KEVIN JOHNSON, in his official capacity; and JOHN/JANE DOES 1-20, in their respective individual and official capacities; Defendants.


          Scott T. Varholak United States Magistrate Judge

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Determination of Spoliation and Sanctions and Memorandum in Support Thereof (the “Motion”). [#97] The Motion was referred to this Court. [#98] This Court has carefully considered the Motion and related briefing, the case file, evidence and argument presented during the March 24, 2017, evidentiary hearing, and the applicable case law. For the following reasons, I DENY the Motion.

         I. Background Facts[1]

         A. Robert Vallina's suicide and the weeks following that suicide

         Robert Vallina committed suicide while in the custody of the Teller County Sheriff's Office and its Detention Center at approximately 1:11 a.m. on September 2, 2014. Deputies were alerted to the suicide by another inmate. That inmate had called the control room and said that the Deputies needed to check on the inmate in the next cell (Cell A-13) because something was not right. When they arrived, Deputies found Mr. Vallina hanging by a bed sheet. Because the Deputies could not untie the bed sheet from Mr. Vallina's neck, Detective Christiansen cut the sheet so that they could lower Mr. Vallina.

         Teller County Sheriff's Detective Dan Sloan investigated Mr. Vallina's death. Detective Sloan went to the Detention Center and was informed by guards that the death was an apparent suicide. Upon arriving at Cell A-13, Detective Sloan observed the sheet that Mr. Vallina had used to hang himself. Half of the sheet remained attached to the top bunk, while the second half was lying on the lower bunk's cot. Mr. Vallina was lying on the cell floor.

         During the course of the investigation, Detective Sloan took several pictures of the cell. He verified that the cell door had been closed at the time of death and that no other individual had been in the cell. He observed an apparent suicide note. Based upon these factors, Detective Sloan's inspection of the cell's contents, and a review of the deputies' reports, Detective Sloan concluded that the death was a suicide. He then called out the coroner and told the coroner what he believed had happened. At that point, the coroner conducted an independent investigation.

         Sometime between 4:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m., Detective Sloan and a victim advocate went to Robert Vallina's parents' home. Detective Sloan spoke with Juan Vallina, Robert Vallina's father.[2] Detective Sloan told Juan Vallina that Robert Vallina had died, and likely told him that it was the result of a suicide. The possibility of a lawsuit was not discussed. Following this conversation, Detective Sloan spoke with the coroner and told the coroner that the only item that needed to be preserved from the cell was the suicide note. As a result, the bed sheet that Robert Vallina used to hang himself was discarded.

         Later that day, the coroner visited Juan Vallina. By that time, he had also concluded that Robert Vallina's death was a suicide. He told Mr. Vallina that everything was normal with the autopsy and that the cause of death was strangulation. Juan Vallina spoke about Robert being a fisherman, and the coroner made a comment along the lines of “that may explain the intricate nature of the knot.” Again, there was no discussion about the possibility of a lawsuit.

         Approximately three days later, Marcello Porcelli, a former Lieutenant with the Teller County Sheriff's Office and former Public Information Officer, came to the Vallina house and met with Martha Vallina. Mr. Porcelli told Ms. Vallina that he had been contacted by the press and wanted Ms. Vallina to approve Mr. Porcelli's statement to the press. Mr. Porcelli further stated that the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo had informed the Sheriff's Office that Robert Vallina was sane and not a threat to anyone, and the Sheriff's Office relied upon those representations when it placed Mr. Vallina in the prison's general population. In response, Ms. Vallina said that she did not blame Mr. Porcelli.

         Over the next two weeks, Ms. Vallina became suspicious about Robert Vallina's death and whether the Sheriff's Office bore some responsibility. During that timeframe, she had a call with the Undersheriff. She told the Undersheriff that she wanted to put some money on the books of the inmate who had alerted the Deputies to Robert Vallina's suicide. Ms. Vallina initially testified that she told the Undersheriff that the family was looking into legal action, but later stated that she was not sure that she did make such a statement.

         Also during these first two weeks, Ms. Vallina went to the Sheriff's Office to try to obtain medical records and reports of the incident. She met with a secretary. The secretary informed Ms. Vallina that she could not have the medical records, though the rationale for not providing the medical records was somewhat unclear as there was some testimony that the Sheriff's Office did not have the medical records.

         On September 11, 2014, an article ran in the Mountain Jackpot News with the headline “Investigation Continues Into Teller County Jail Death” and a subhead entitled “Mental Health System in Question.” Robert Vallina's sister, Heather Vallina, was interviewed for the article. She is quoted as saying: “I understand [the Sheriff's Office's] stance, but just feel this shouldn't have happened. There was a history here.” Heather Vallina also states that she does not believe that the jails are equipped to handle inmates with serious mental health issues.

         In addition to speaking with the Mountain Jackpot News, Heather Vallina also contacted Channel 11 News in Colorado Springs. Channel 11 began investigating Mr. Vallina's death. Channel 11 interviewed the Undersheriff and sought medical records. Despite having signed releases, the Undersheriff apparently did not provide Channel 11 with the medical records.

         B. The legal proceedings

         On January 2, 2015, Sergeant Sandefur of the Sheriff's Office was advised to open an internal affairs investigation into the death of Robert Vallina. On February 21, 2015, Plaintiffs' counsel sent a notice of claim to Sheriff Ensminger, the Board of County Commissioners for Teller County, and to the Attorney ...

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