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Fifth Circuit Upholds Summary Judgment Dismissal in Jail Suicide Case

On April 26, 2019, the Fifth Circuit court of appeals upheld a district court’s summary judgment dismissing a lawsuit over a Texas jail prisoner’s suicide.

Early in the morning of February 19, 2016, Jose Luis Garza’s mother called 911 and said that her son was heavily intoxicated and arguing with his brother in the family’s home. City of Donna police officers responded to the call. She told them she “feared for his life” and was “afraid of him hurting himself.”

Police officer Mario Silva arrested Garza for “assault by threat” and took him to a police facility intended for short-term detention. Garza was placed in a cell with no mental health precautions. The cell was video monitored, but the employee responsible for monitoring had other duties as well.

About two hours after he was placed in the cell, Garza obscured the camera lens. This went unnoticed. Soon thereafter, jailers heard Garza banging on his cell door to get their attention. They ignored him. About 40 minutes later, the chance arrival of agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement resulted in the discovery of Garza’s body hanging in his cell.

Garza’s family and estate filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Donna alleging jailers were distracted from monitoring because the police chief had them mounting framed signs of the Marvel comic book character “The Punisher” and the statement, “Welcome to the Donna Hilton.”

The complaint alleged that the signs announced a policy of abusing prisoners as The Punisher was known for vigilante violence and the “Donna Hilton” sign was a mocking reference to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” Vietnamese prison camp where American prisoners of war were tortured and abused.

The district court refused to consider the suit as one challenging conditions of confinement, viewing it instead as an episodic-action claim. It engaged in a three-prong analysis set forth in Sanchez v. Young County, Texas, 866 F.3d 274 (5th Cir. 2017) and found plaintiffs had failed to prove defendants intended to cause harm. Therefore, the court granted defendants summary judgment and dismissed the lawsuit. The plaintiffs appealed.

The Fifth Circuit agreed with plaintiffs that the intention requirement exceeds the analysis set out in Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994). Therefore, it was error to use the Sanchez analysis, even if it came from Fifth Circuit precedent. However, the court affirmed the granting of summary judgment on the grounds that the signs were too “nebulous” to be announcing a policy of prisoner abuse and the plaintiffs had not alleged that any of the police officers or jailers were acting pursuant to any particular policy or custom and had provided no evidence regarding the employees’ training or any pattern of civil rights violations at the holding facility and no evidence that the police chief even knew Garza was there.

Therefore, “the episodic acts or omissions of these employees cannot be attributed to the City.”
See: Garza v. City of Donna, 5th Cir. No. 18-40044 (2019)

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Related legal case

Garza v. City of Donna, Texas