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Ninth Circuit Upholds Arizona Teenage Detainee Suicide Claim Dismissal

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s grant of summary judgment to Arizona jail officials related to a teenage detainee’s suicide. The court vacated the dismissal of plaintiff’s state law claims and remanded for reconsideration.

Seventeen-year-old Jasper Simmons was charged with molesting a 10-year-old girl and was confined in Navajo County Jail, an adult facility. During his initial assessment on May 21, 2005, he denied receiving mental health counseling, having suicidal thoughts, or having a family history of suicide. One week later however, Jasper slit his left wrist with a razor. Nurse Genie Greason described the wound as “superficial cuts, scrapes, and abrasions”.

Jasper was placed on Suicide Watch Level I, from May 28, 2005 to June 8, 2005, when he was downgraded to Level II. By all accounts, his mood continued to stabilize and improve, but he was retained on suicide watch as a precautionary measure. That decision was to be re-evaluated at a July 19, 2005 case management conference.

On July 2, 2005, Jasper visited his parents from 1:30pm to 2:40pm, “neither of his parents suspected that he would attempt suicide later that day.” They believed he was in “pretty good spirits; a good mood”. Guard Albert Warren did not notice anything unusual about Jasper’s demeanor when escorting him back to his cell at 2:50 pm or when delivering his dinner tray at 4:35pm.

One hour and eleven minutes later, at 5:46pm, Guard Randall Ratcliff found Jasper “hanging from the top slide lock on his cell door by what appeared to be some type of homemade rope,” fashioned from medical gauze from his old wrist wound dressing. Jasper was pronounced dead at 6:50pm.

Jasper’s parents sued in state court, alleging Warren, Nurses Greason and Jones, and several other defendants violated Jasper’s Constitutional rights, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 42 U.S.C. § 12132, and state law. Defendants removed to federal court, and the district court granted them summary judgment.

On appeal, the Ninth Court focused exclusively upon “whether the individual defendants knew but disregarded” Jasper’s heightened suicide risk. The parties did not dispute that Jasper’s suicide risk was a serious medical need.

Beginning with Nurse Jones, the court found that the evidence did not support an inference that she “knew that Jasper was at acute risk of harm at the time he killed himself.” This was true because over a month had elapsed since his suicide attempt with a razor, during which time Jasper received counseling, took antidepressants, and by all accounts was doing better. Not only were her own interactions with Jasper “unremarkable,“ but she also had no reason to believe from the treatment notes of the social worker and psychiatric nurse practitioner, which she reviewed as part of Jasper’s chart, that Jasper was on the brink of killing himself.

Likewise, “Nurse Greason did not think Jasper seemed depressed or agitated, and the Simmonses point to no evidence to refute her testimony”. The court found that “no reasonable jury would conclude that a teenager who did not want to be interrupted while watching television was obviously suicidal and required intervention.”

The court also upheld the grant of summary judgment to Sergeant Warren because it was “uncontested that (he) did not know about Jasper’s previous suicide attempt and never noticed a wrist injury or gauze dressings. He did not know Jasper was suffering from depression and taking antidepressants, he never heard Jasper make a suicidal threat or gesture, and during his interactions with Jasper on July 2nd, he saw nothing that would send up a red flag.” In so holding, the court agreed with the Eighth Circuit that “once a suicide has been accomplished in spite of preventive measures, it is all too easy to point out the flaws of failure.” Rolleger v. Cape Girardeau County. 924 F.2d 794, 796, (8th Circ.1991).

Since there was no underlying constitutional violation committed by the individual defendants, the court affirmed the lower court’s denial of the supervisory liability and municipal liability claims.

The court also rejected plaintiff’s claim that defendants failed to accommodate Jasper’s ADA disability (depression) by denying him access to outdoor recreation or placing him in a more appropriate facility. The court observed that to prevail on an ADA claim, a plaintiff must show that (1) he is an individual with a disability; (2) he is otherwise qualified to receive the benefit of a public entity’s services, programs or activities; (3) he was discriminated against or excluded or denied the benefits of such services, programs or activities and (4) the exclusion, denial or discrimination was due to his disability. McGary v. City of Portland, 386 F.3d 1259, 1265 (9th Cir 2004).

Assuming without deciding that Jasper’s depression was an ADA disability the court concluded that he was not denied outdoor recreation because of his depression. Additionally, even assuming that transfer to some other prison facility might have been a reasonable accommodation, there is no evidence that such a transfer was ever sought or denied, let alone that such denial was because of or motivated by Jasper’s depression. The court reiterated that the ADA prohibits discrimination because of disability, not inadequate treatment for disability. See Bryant v. Madigan, 84 F.3d 246, 249 (7th Cir 1996).

Finally, the court vacated the dismissal of plaintiffs’ state law claims under Backus v. State of Arizona, 203 P.3d 499, 505 (Ariz. 2009)(en banc). Should the district court decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims, “it may remand those claims to the state court for further proceedings, including the application of Backus in the first instance.” See: Simmons v. Navajo County, 609 F.3d 1011 (9th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Simmons v. Navajo County