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Sixth Circuit Upholds Summary Judgment Against 14-Year-Old Mentally Ill Pretrial Detainee, Raped by Guard in Solitary

 by David Wilson

 The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a 14-year-old Tennessee detainee’s solitary confinement, mental health care and sexual abuse claims.

J.H. suffers from Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorder Associated with Streptococcal Infections (PANDAS). This disease manifests in psychiatric symptoms, including abrupt onset of obsessive-compulsive disorder, impulsivity, eating disorders, depression, dysgraphia and sleep disturbances.

After being exposed to strep bacteria in April 2013, J.H. began exhibiting extreme behavior due to a PANDAS flare up. This led to a series of juvenile department interventions beginning in May 2013.

In October 2013, J.H. and his mother traveled to Maryland for treatment from Dr. Elizabeth Latimer, a pediatric neurologist who specializes in treating children with PANDAS. Latimer administered an intravenous immunoglobulin therapy (IVIG) to reboot his immune system. It typically takes 4-6 months after IVIG treatment for a PANDAS patient to start improving, according to Latimer. Patients such as J.H. should remain in a center that specializes in treating children with neuropsychiatric illnesses and behavior challenges during that time, Latimer recommends.

Two days after receiving treatment, however, J.H. was confined in Tennessee’s Williamson County Juvenile Detention Center (JDC) for taking and crashing his mother’s car. He was confined in a JDC dormitory without incident from October 13 to October 25, 2013.

During J.H.’s confinement, his mother continued to seek the inpatient care that Latimer recommended. On October 17, 2013, J.H.’s attorney petitioned the juvenile court to furlough J.H. to his mother’s care so he could receive PANDAS treatment at a neurological treatment facility. The court granted the request and J.H. was released on October 25, 2013.

A few weeks later, the court ordered J.H. returned to JDC custody when it discovered that an insurance dispute prevented him from entering the facility.

On November 17, 2013, two days after the 14-year-old pretrial detainee who suffers from mental illness was returned to JDC, three juveniles claimed that J.H. had become angry, destroyed property, punched a window and threatened to sexually assault them if they reported his misconduct. One of the juveniles later recanted, admitting the story was fabricated to get J.H. moved from the dormitory.

Nevertheless, J.H. was denied a Disciplinary Committee hearing in violation of JDC policy. Yet he was confined in solitary confinement from November 17, 2013 until December 19, 2013.

On December 7, 2013, JDC guard Juan Cruz granted J.H.’s request to clean around the facility so he could get out of his cell. While J.H. was cleaning, Cruz followed him into a closet where there were no security cameras and sexually assaulted him. J.H. reported the assault, and Cruz was suspended pending investigation. Cruz was later terminated when criminal charges were filed against him.

On December 9, 2013, Judge Sharon Guffee ordered that J.H. remain in segregation because he did not “get along with the boys in his dormitory” and to prevent J.H. from discussing Cruz’s sexual assault. J.H. remained in solitary until he was released from confinement on December 19, 2013.

J.H., through his mother, brought federal suit against JDC officials. He alleged that his Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated by his solitary confinement, lack of adequate mental health care, and the sexual assault.

The district court granted Defendants summary judgment on the solitary confinement claim for November 17, 2013 until December 19, 2013, because that confinement was ordered by Judge Guffee, who was entitled to absolute immunity.

The Court then found that genuine disputes of material fact existed on J.H.’s sexual abuse claim against Cruz and allowed that claim to proceed to trial. However, it granted summary judgment to all other Defendants on all of J.H.’s remaining claims.

The Sixth Circuit affirmed, holding first that Defendants were entitled to qualified immunity on J.H.’s solitary confinement claims. “We cannot say that the right at issue was established with sufficient specificity as to hold it clearly established as of 2013, the time of these incidents,” the Court concluded. “Many of the cases recognizing what a punishing experience placement in solitary confinement can be — especially for juveniles and those with mental health issues — have been issued after 2013.”

The court also upheld summary judgment on J.H.’s inadequate mental health care claims. “It is undisputed that J.H. met with and received medication from multiple medical professionals during his time at JDC, and that none of these officials requested that JDC make any accommodations for J.H.’s medical needs,” the Court found. “Thus, the defendants’ actions were taken in reasonable ‘reliance on medical judgments made by medical professionals responsible for prisoner care.’”

While the Court claimed that it found “the details of Cruz’s alleged assault on J.H. are troubling,” it concluded that the supervisory defendants were entitled to summary judgment on the sexual assault claims. “J.H. has not shown a ‘direct causal connection’ between the failure to train Cruz and his alleged assault of J.H. — in other words, it is far from clear that any lack of training was the ‘moving force’ behind Cruz’s decision to sexually assault a child,” the court held. See: J.H. v. Williamson County,_ F3d _ (6th Cir. 2020).


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Related legal case

J.H. v. Williamson County