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Mental Health Specialist May be Liable in California Jail Detainee’s Suicide

In a tragic case involving a father who signed a citizen’s arrest for his son who later committed suicide while in pretrial detention, the Ninth Circuit upheld the grant of summary judgment to two sheriff’s deputies and the county that employed them. However, the Court reversed the grant of summary judgment to one of the county’s mental health specialists, Margaret Blush, who, it found, may have been deliberately indifferent to the detainee’s mental health needs when she took him off suicide watch that had been ordered by another specialist.

On July 26, 2005, Robert Clouthier had an argument with his father, became violent, destroyed a china cabinet and jumped through a plate glass window, causing himself to bleed severely. Robert’s family called the police, his father signed a citizen’s arrest, and Robert was taken into custody for felony vandalism. Agitated and upset, he was transported by ambulance to a hospital, where he refused to have his wounds stitched.

The next morning, after being booked into the Martinez Detention Facility, Robert was evaluated by Sharlene Hana-way, a Contra Costa County mental health specialist who determined, based on his responses to her questions and his history of suicide attempts, that he was “one of the most suicidal inmates she had ever seen.”

Hanaway placed Robert on suicide watch in a safety cell. She informed other mental health workers, including Blush, and the deputies then on duty that Robert was “truly suicidal” and “the real deal.” About five hours later, shortly after Hanaway’s shift ended, Blush spoke with Robert for a few minutes, determined that his risk of suicide had decreased, and told Deputy Foley that Robert could be removed from suicide watch.

Blush and Foley gave conflicting testimony as to whether Blush had told Foley to keep Robert in the safety cell. Regardless, Robert remained there until the morning of August 1, 2005, when he was moved into general population and placed in a cell with another detainee. That evening, according to Robert’s cellmate, Robert fash-ioned his sheet into a noose. He then hung himself, about half an hour after Deputy Foley came to the cell to let his cellmate out for recreation time. Robert died ten days later.

His parents filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Following the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, their case for damages can proceed to trial, but only against defendant Blush. One of the appellate judges dissented from the majority’s conclusion as to grant-ing summary judgment to Deputy Foley. See: Clouthier v. County of Contra Costa, 591 F.3d 1232 (9th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Clouthier v. County of Contra Costa