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Estate of Duke v. Gunnison County Sheriff's Office

United States District Court, D. Colorado

January 29, 2018

THE ESTATE OF JOSEPH C. "TREY" DUKE, III, by and through its personal representatives Beth Anne Duke and Joseph Councell Duke, Jr., BETH ANNE DUKE, and JOSEPH COUNCELL DUKE, JR., Plaintiffs,
GUNNISON COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE, RICHARD BESECKER, in his individual capacity, IAN CLARK, in his individual capacity, SCOTT LEON, in his individual capacity, PAULA MARTINEZ, in her individual capacity, CONNER UDELL, in his individual capacity, MEGAN HOLLENBECK, in her individual capacity, CHAD ROBERTS, in his individual capacity, BRANDYN RUPP, in his individual capacity, and RYAN PHILLIPS, in his individual capacity, Defendants.



         This matter is before the Court on defendants' motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 91, 92. After hearing oral argument on the motions, the Court GRANTS the motions.


         This is a sad case involving the death of a young man while in police custody. Joseph C. (“Trey”) Duke, a recently released parolee, was arrested on the afternoon of June 27, 2015 for possession of narcotics, violation of a protective order, and violation of his parole. ECF No. 91 at 3. Trey was passed out when Deputy Clark of the Gunnison County Sheriff's Office encountered him, but he woke up when Deputy Clark addressed him. ECF No. 39 at 5; ECF No. 91-1 at 2. Deputy Clark determined that Trey was under a protective order prohibiting him from being under the influence of a controlled substance. ECF No. 91-1 at 3. Trey insisted that he had only taken Clonazepam, a medication prescribed to him. Id. at 9. Deputy Clark conducted field sobriety tests, which Trey failed, and he searched Trey, finding packets of an unknown substance and a prescription pill bottle containing a substance other than what Trey was prescribed. ECF No. 91 at 3, ECF No. 39 at 7, ECF No. 91-1 at 5, 7. Deputy Clark was joined on the scene of the arrest by Deputies Leon and Martinez, and Colorado State Patrol Troopers Sparks and Trafton. ECF No. 39 at 7.

         Deputy Martinez transported Trey to the Gunnison County Detention Center, where Troopers Trafton and Sparks performed a Drug Recognition Evaluation (“DRE”). ECF No. 91 at 4. During the DRE, the troopers checked Trey's vitals several times, but Trey declined a voluntary blood draw. ECF No. 92 at 3; ECF No. 91 at 4. During the course of the evaluation, which lasted about one-and-a-half hours, video shows that Trey mostly sat on a bench, occasionally with his head nodding. ECF No. 39 at 8. At one point Trey fell off the bench to the floor, after which he returned to his seat. Id. Trey would occasionally “slump over, ” but he was “able to engage in whatever question was asked him [sic] or whatever the conversation was going on around him.” ECF No. 91 at 4. The DRE resulted in a finding that Trey was under the influence of a Central Nervous System stimulant and a narcotic analgesic, though Trey continued to deny using any drugs other than his prescription medication. ECF No. 39 at 8, ECF No. 91 at 4.[1]

         Following Trey's evaluation, Deputy Udell transferred Trey to a padded holding cell with an in-cell camera. ECF No. 92 at 3. Between the hours of 7 p.m. and 11 p.m., Deputy Udell met with Trey at various points to complete a medical questionnaire, conduct his formal booking, and allow him to make a few phone calls and use the restroom. Id. at 4. Deputy Udell transferred Trey to a different cell around 11 p.m., and he continued to monitor Trey until the end of his shift at 2 a.m. Id. Other detention center staff, including Deputies Rupp and Roberts, periodically monitored Trey during the night as he slept, although plaintiffs dispute the level and adequacy of this monitoring. Id.

         During the early morning hours of June 28, 2015 Trey was monitored periodically by Deputies Roberts, Rupp and Phillips. Id. Deputy Roberts delivered Trey a breakfast tray at 7:30 a.m., for which Trey thanked the deputy. ECF No. 92-2 at 4. When Deputy Roberts attempted to retrieve the tray at 8:00 a.m, Trey indicated that he was not done eating, so he was allowed to keep the tray. ECF No. 92 at 13. Deputy Phillips collected the tray around 8:30 a.m. ECF No. 91 at 5. At 9:01, as Deputy Roberts left the detention center for the day, he observed that Trey was seated on the floor as he had been for his breakfast, and that he was slumped over but breathing. Id. Three minutes later, Deputy Rupp checked on Trey and noticed that he was not breathing and appeared to have bile on his mouth. ECF No. 92 at 5. Deputy Rupp began performing emergency first aid and called for help; an ambulance arrived in minutes but emergency personnel were unable to revive Trey. Id.

         An autopsy revealed a plastic baggie in Trey's gastric contents that contained traces of fentanyl. ECF No. 91-14. The autopsy determined that Trey had fentanyl, cocaine, benzodiazepines and oxycodone in his system at the time of death and concluded that the cause of death was an acute drug overdose. Id. Defendants' expert in forensic toxicology opined that the amount of fentanyl in Trey's system was high enough to be an independent cause of his death, and that none of the other drugs in his blood played a significant role in his death. ECF No. 91-6. As such, defendants contend that Trey ingested a fentanyl patch before he was arrested, and that the baggie enclosing the patch must have ruptured around breakfast time leading to his overdose. In contrast, plaintiffs' retained expert opined that while fentanyl most likely caused Trey's death, the effect of the fentanyl was augmented by the presence of a benzodiazepine in Trey's system. ECF No. 104-15 at 6. Plaintiffs argue that it cannot be conclusively proven that Trey ingested a fentanyl patch; that he ingested the fentanyl before, as opposed to during, custody; or that the fentanyl in his system independently caused his death.


         The Court may grant summary judgment if “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party has the burden to show that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). The nonmoving party must “designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324. A fact is material “if under the substantive law it is essential to the proper disposition of the claim.” Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670 (10th Cir. 1998) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). An issue of material fact is genuine if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. The Court will examine the factual record and make reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment. Concrete Works of Colo., Inc. v. City & Cnty. of Denver, 36 F.3d 1513, 1517 (10th Cir. 1994).


         Plaintiffs' complaint raises two claims: (1) a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim against all defendants other than Sheriff Besecker for a violation of Trey's constitutional rights under the Fourteenth Amendment for deliberate indifference to a serious medical threat, and (2) a state wrongful death claim under C.R.S. §13-21-202 against all defendants. Defendants move for summary judgment on the § 1983 claim, asserting qualified immunity for the individual defendants and lack of municipal liability on behalf of the Sheriff's Office. Defendants also move for summary judgment on the state wrongful death claim, first on the grounds that the Court ought not extend supplemental jurisdiction if the federal claim is dismissed, and alternatively on the basis that plaintiffs are not eligible to invoke any of the limited exceptions to defendants' immunity to the state wrongful death law. I will address each claim in turn.

         A. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Deliberate Indifference Claim.

         Plaintiffs' § 1983 claim alleges that all the named defendants, aside from Sheriff Besecker, were deliberately indifferent to Trey's serious medical need in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. ECF No. 39 at 14. Plaintiffs contend that the defendants were aware of Trey's intoxication and risk of death by overdose at the time of his ...

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