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Sawyers v. Norton

United States District Court, D. Colorado

May 31, 2019

BRIAN NORTON, in his individual and official capacities, JONATHAN L. HART, in his individual and official capacities, GARY BRUDER, in his individual and official capacities, JESSE HAND, in his individual and official capacities, DOES 1-10, in their individual and official capacities, Defendants.



         On December 2, 2015, Gordon G. Sawyers ripped his own right eyeball from its socket. He had been charged with arson and was in custody at the Rio Grande County Jail, where Defendants Hart, Hand, and Bruder were keeping watch and over which Defendant Norton presided as sheriff. Sawyers alleges that Defendants acted negligently and with deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. There is no question that Sawyers was mentally infirm and had been on suicide watch. But Defendants argue they adequately monitored him and are not liable as a matter of law. They move for summary judgment on all claims. The Court GRANTS in part and DENIES in part the motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Taken in the light most favorable to Sawyers, the material facts are these. On November 17, 2015, Sawyers was arrested for having set fire to an art gallery under the belief that God had told him to “cleanse the business of witches with fire.” (SUMF ¶¶ 1-2.)[1] He was charged with a felony and booked into the Mineral County Jail, where he was initially assessed “to see if he was an imminent danger to himself, including suicidal risk or self harm.” (Id. ¶ 4.) A counselor concluded:

It is difficult to evaluate Mr. Sawyers mental status completely due to his grandiose and persecutory delusions and psychosis that interferes with his being able to exercise good judgment, understand reality as others do, and to behave appropriately. . . . [H]e did not display any aggressive behavior toward himself, me or others. He states that he has never been suicidal, even when he was depressed. . . . Although he clearly has mental health issues that I strongly suggest be treated while he is in custody, he denies any thoughts of harm to himself or others. Therefore referral for further evaluation would be questionable, as he does not appear to meet the criteria for commitment under Colorado law. I recommend that he continue to be evaluated while he is in custody, as he reports that he is not currently receiving treatment and it is likely that his delusions and behavior in reaction to his hallucinations may intensify.

(Id.)[2] Because Mineral County has few resources, Sawyers was transported to the Rio Grande County Jail (RGCJ) later that day to be held on his charges. (Id. ¶ 3.) Defendant Norton is the Rio Grande County Sheriff. Defendants Bruder, Hand, and Hart are law enforcement corrections officers at RGCJ.

         When he got to RGCJ, Sawyers affirmed that he had never attempted suicide and did not have any suicidal thoughts, and he was assigned to general population housing. (Id. ¶¶ 5-6.) But Sawyers exhibited extreme behavior at RGCJ-including peeling back his toenails, causing other self-inflicted wounds, refusing meals, and refusing medication-and he was seen several times by mental health professionals during his stay. (See, e.g., id. ¶¶ 53, 74.) On November 19, 2015, Sawyers was evaluated by a San Luis Valley Mental Health Group (SLVMH) clinician. (Id. ¶¶ 7-8, 15.) Sawyers denied symptoms of depression or anxiety, but the assessor diagnosed schizophrenia and recommended a psychiatric assessment and medication management. (Id. ¶¶ 5-6.) On November 21, jailers moved Sawyers to a lockdown cell for entering another inmate's cell and spitting because he believed God had told him to do so. (Id. ¶ 10.) He was moved back to general population, but on November 27 guards moved him to the booking/observation cell because he had been suffering from further delusions and found naked in another's cell attempting to put his penis into his own rectum. As Hart put it, “we had no choice ultimately but to place him in the holding cell because of his behavior.” (Id. ¶ 12.) On November 27, 2015, at RGCJ's request, another SLVMH clinician returned to evaluate Sawyers, but Sawyers refused to talk. (Id. ¶ 16-18.) The report states, “ES kept client on suicide watch and advised the guards that if he has another psychotic episode to take client to the ER and call ES.” (Id. ¶ 19.) Per Rio Grande Sheriff's Office policy, inmates who threaten to commit suicide will be placed in a holding cell and checked at least every fifteen minutes until cleared. If SLVMH gives an order for an inmate's safety, including putting him on suicide watch as happened here, jailers cannot change or clear that order. (Id. ¶ 61.) On November 28, SLVMH clinician Tammy Obie met with Sawyers, and her report recounts continued delusional behavior and notes that he had been belly cuffed by the jailers so that he would not harm himself but that he “adamantly denied [suicidal or homicidal ideations].” (Id. ¶ 20.) Obie's plan was that Sawyers would stay in the observation cell where he could be regularly monitored to ensure that he was not harming himself, but she concluded that he did not meet the criteria for invoking emergency procedures permitting the courts or mental health professionals to take action when a person appears to be at risk of harming themselves. (Id. ¶¶ 21-25.) Finally, Obie told the jailers that she would request a psychological evaluation for November 30. (Id. ¶ 26.) On November 30, Sawyers was transported from RGCJ to SLVMH for another evaluation, but he again refused to cooperate with the psychiatric interview. (Id. ¶¶ 28-30.) The report from that day notes that Sawyers was not under a court order to obtain psychiatric treatment and could not be forced to sit for the interview or begin medications. (Id. ¶ 31.)

         At some point on or before November 27, 2015, Sheriff Norton directed his deputies to document Sawyers's behavior in a log to assist SLVMH in assessing him. (Id. ¶ 14; Ex. 53, ECF No. 119-55, at 31, 33, 37, 43, 49.) Thus, while officers at RGCJ use personal logs that detail events throughout their shifts-such as when inmates are out for showers or lunch is served- they kept a log specific to Sawyers entitled “Suicide Watch-15 Min.” (See generally Ex. 53.) Officers filled this log out on the computer in the booking area next to the cell in which Sawyers was located. (SUMF ¶ 63.) From 10:00 p.m. on November 27 through the end of November 30, this log details Sawyers's activity ad nauseum-whether his doings were mundane or noteworthy. (See, e.g., Ex. 53, at 43 (containing nine straight entries from 3:00 a.m. to 5:15 a.m. of “lying on his matt” but also one at 8:10 am of “urinating in drinking cup”).) December 1 is nearly empty, but the log continues with regular entries the morning of December 2. (Id. at 43.)

         On December 2, 2015, Defendants Hart, Hand, and Bruder were on duty at RGCJ during the evening shift. (SUMF ¶ 33.) Hart and Hand were assigned to the booking desk area and were responsible for checking on Sawyers; Bruder was sitting in the sergeant's office around the corner and could see the booking area on a monitor. (Id. ¶¶ 33-34, 39.) The parties have provided photos of the booking area in relation to the cell in which Sawyers was held. (See Id. ¶ 35, Ex. 83.) Seated at the booking desk, an officer would be able to view portions of the cell. Standing at the desk, nearly every corner of the cell is visible. (See id.) The area also contains cabinets in which inmate medications are stored. Standing beside those cabinets, an officer can see the entire cell. (See id.) At some point during the evening shift, Hart stood at the medicine cabinets preparing medication to take to all of the inmates. (Id. ¶ 36.) Hart and Hand then left the area to distribute the same. (Id. ¶ 37.) Neither Hart nor Hand are sure exactly what time they left the booking area that night or how long they were away, but Hand testified that he usually performed this task at 9:00 p.m. and they were back within fifteen minutes. (Id. ¶¶ 37-38; Ex. 11, at 187:4-13.) In fact, Defendants are adamant that Sawyers was observed at least every fifteen minutes that day. (SUMF ¶ 50.) However, the “Suicide Watch” log has only ten entries from 2:15 p.m. to 9:45 p.m. and does not confirm any of Defendants' whereabouts or Sawyers's activity from 6:07 p.m. to 9:15 p.m., [3] and there is no surviving surveillance video of the time in question. (Id. ¶ 37; Ex. 53, at 48.)

         When they returned, Hart went to the cabinet to return the medication cups, Hand sat down at the booking desk, and the two spoke for a few minutes. (SUMF ¶ 39 (citing Bruder's testimony).) It is not clear who saw him first, but Hart or Hand noticed that Sawyers was turned away from them, had his hands on his face, and was bleeding. (Id. ¶¶ 40-41.) He claimed to have a bloody nose but refused to turn around. (Id. ¶¶ 42-43.) At around 9:15 p.m., the officers entered the cell and discovered that Sawyers had removed his right eye from its socket and was attempting to injure his left eye. (Id. ¶¶ 44-46.) They immediately restrained him to prevent further injury, and Bruder requested that dispatch page an ambulance. (Id. ¶¶ 48-49.) Sawyers vividly remembers removing his own eye to prevent it from being “harvested by the witches, ” but he doesn't recall anything else from earlier that day. (Id. ¶ 51.)

         In addition to claims against Defendant in their individual capacities, Sawyers has alleged official-capacity claims against the Rio County Sheriff's Office that look to examine certain of its policies and practices. According to Norton, suicide is probably the leading cause of death in jails generally and mental health has become an issue in every county jail. (Id. ¶¶ 54-55.) The issue of mental health in the county jail has arisen before the Rio Grande county commissioners on several occasions-whether general policy was under discussion or a situation regarding a particular inmate-with Norton expressing budgetary, staffing, and practical concerns. (Id. ¶ 55; Exs. 15, 80, 81, 82, 84.) Norton's staff didn't participate in certain trainings available on reducing the number of people with mental illness in jails. (SUMF ¶ 59.) Even so, Norton testified loosely about training on suicide prevention, which included determining if someone is mentally ill or stressed, but the focus of his policy in mental health situations is best summarized as “call the professionals, ” such as those at SLVMH, and jail staff understood that if there were mental health concerns with a prisoner, they were to contact professionals for assistance and evaluation. (Id. ¶¶ 55, 60; Ex. C, at 73:21-75:4.) At the time of the incident, there were no formal medical and mental health policies or procedures manuals based on national accreditation standards of care in place at RGCJ. (SUMF ¶ 58.) However, the jail did have an attempted/suspected suicide policy which outlined procedures for notifying mental health professionals and fifteen-minute checks on inmates until they are cleared by those professionals. (Ex. 42.)[4]

         Norton has not been silent regarding the jail's role in housing mentally infirm patients. During Sawyers's incarceration, Norton vocally expressed antagonism to having him around. He spoke with Jennifer Silva (who in 2015 was the director of intensive services at SLVMH), expressing “an urgency to get [Sawyers] out of the jail . . . because he felt like he doesn't have the capacity to deal with [mentally ill] people in the jail.” Norton testified that the unavailability of a facility that will receive mentally ill inmates like Sawyers makes it even more critical for deputies to be on top of their duties in caring for a mentally ill inmate. (SUMF ¶¶ 27, 56.) The state psychiatric hospital in Pueblo, Colorado is the only place to take a mentally ill inmate facing felony charges, but there is a wait of nine to twelve months to get an inmate transferred into its forensic unit. Judges cannot order the state hospital to accept inmates, so “the county jails get stuck with it, and there is nowhere to transport him except for the state hospital.” (Id. ¶ 70.)

         II. ANALYSIS

         Sawyers filed this action alleging negligence and deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment by Defendants in their individual capacities. He also alleged that the Rio Grande County Sheriff's Office, as a municipal institution, is liable based on its policy or custom of failing to provide medical care, failing to provide adequate training, ...

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