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Failure to Timely Provide Methadone Results in Death, Defeats Summary Judgment

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed an Illinois federal district court’s grant of summary judgment to officials at the Cook County Jail in a civil rights action that alleged inadequate medical assistance resulting in a prisoner’s death.

Before reporting to the Cook County Jail (CCJ) to serve a ten-day sentence for a traffic violation, James Davis received a dose of methadone at his outpatient methadone treatment program. Upon receipt at CCJ on September 27, 2002, Davis advised a correctional medical technician that he was a methadone patient.

Over the next six days, Davis begged and pleaded to receive methadone because he was experiencing excruciating pain from withdrawal. Despite being approved for receipt of methadone by CCJ’s pharmacy, Davis never received it. On the sixth day of his incarceration Davis died.

His wife filed a civil rights action, which the district court dismissed on a motion for summary judgment, holding that she had waived her claims of municipal liability against Cook County and the facts indicated that none of the individual defendants were deliberately indifferent to Davis’ serious medical needs.

The district court held the municipal liability claim was waived because the complaint provided only “cursory allegations and arguments,” and the plaintiff had failed to cite sufficient legal authority in response to the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The Seventh Circuit disagreed with the lower court’s rationale.

First, the Court of Appeals found the defendants’ brief in support of their motion for summary judgment “set forth the proper Monell v. Dept. of Soc. Servs. of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978) standard for municipal liability, and we see no reason why the plaintiff need cite additional legal authority in her response brief, provided that her argument depended entirely on the application of facts to the well-established Monell legal standard already presented in the defendants’ brief.”

As such, the Court held the plaintiff need only “document sufficient evidence to allow a jury to make a reasonable inference that Cook County had a widespread custom or practice that caused a cognizable injury to Davis.” The Seventh Circuit found such a showing was made.

Evidence was presented that there were essentially no policies or procedures in place at the CCJ to ensure that verification of a prisoner’s participation in a methadone clinic was done in a timely manner. Moreover, no policies or procedures existed to assure that once verification was made, guards were informed in a timely fashion and prisoners were brought to the pharmacy within a reasonable time.

The Court also found there was a widespread practice of at least three days’ delay simply to verify a prisoner’s outpatient methadone treatment regimen. Such delays were even longer if a prisoner’s admission occurred during the weekend. The evidence presented revealed a general pattern of repeated behavior, which supported the existence of a general custom or practice under Monell. A jury would have to determine if the delays were routine or isolated.

The Court also found that guard Gregory Collier, Sergeant Grant Martin and social/rehabilitation worker Regina Bowers may be liable in their individual capacity for failing to assure Davis received adequate medical attention. Each of them had personally witnessed Davis’ condition, which he described as “dope sick.” None of the three pushed for Davis to see paramedics or a doctor, instead telling him that he had to await approval to receive methadone.

The Seventh Circuit found the evidence was insufficient to withstand summary judgment against other defendants named in the complaint. Accordingly, the district court’s order was affirmed in part and reversed in part. See: Davis v. Carter, 452 F.3d 686 (7th Cir. 2006). Following remand, the case was settled.

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Related legal case

Davis v. Carter