Fifth Circuit Upholds Dismissal of Texas Jail Suicide Lawsuit, Holds Discrimination Not Proven
Danarian Hawkins was 27 in February 2014 when he died by hanging himself with a bedsheet in his holding cell at the jail. He had been arrested in June 2012 after allegedly threatening a man with a knife in a parking lot.
His mother, Jacqueline Smith, said she was unable to pay his $30,000 bail, so he remained in custody over a year and a half awaiting trial. He made an unsuccessful suicide attempt in April 2013, after which he spent time in the jail’s Mental Health Unit (MHU). But he was then released back into the general population at the jail.
All told, Hawkins attempted suicide at least five times at the jail—usually by hanging but once by an overdose of 100 prescribed pills he amassed by hiding them under his tongue when he was supposed to take them.
Two and a half weeks before he died, he was found attempting to hang himself using a sheet tied to a smoke detector and transferred to MHU. He was discharged after two weeks and returned to the same cell.
Four days later, a nurse on rounds talked with Hawkins, who said he had recently tried to kill himself because the Illuminati was watching him. However, he indicated that he was not presently suicidal.
The next day, a guard noticed the window in Hawkins’s cell door was covered with a towel. Upon investigation, he found Hawkins hanging by a sheet tied to the smoke detector. The guard performed CPR after he and others got Hawkins down. Hawkins was taken to the jail’s clinic, where he died.
In July 2015, on behalf of Hawkins’ estate, Smith filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq., and the Rehabilitation Act (RA), 29 U.S.C. § 794(a).
Harris County moved for summary judgment as there was “no evidence of intentional discrimination, which is required for compensatory damages.”
In February 2019, the trial court granted the motion, noting specifically that Hawkins was housed alone not because of his mental health but because he had a history of assaulting other prisoners and staff.
On appeal, the Fifth Circuit noted that the ADA and RA were passed to prohibit intentional discrimination and, therefore, such discrimination must be proven in order to prevail. It rejected the idea that jail employees intentionally discriminated against Hawkins by, for instance, failing to provide him a knot-proof suicide blanket, removing the smoke detector from his cell so it “could not be used as a tie-off point,” leaving in place the towel that covered his window, referring him to the MHU following his bizarre conversation with the nurse the day prior to his death, and more closely monitoring his activities.
The jail staff had no notice that such steps were necessary, the Court determined, as they had placed him in MHU, which had released him, so they did not believe he was actively suicidal.
The Court said: “[The] laws allow Smith to recover damages only if she can prove that Harris County or its employees intentionally discriminated against Hawkins. Because Smith cannot prove that Hawkins was subjected to intentional discrimination, the district court correctly granted summary judgment to Harris County.”
Therefore, the judgment of the district court was affirmed. See: Smith v. Harris County, 956 F.3d 311 (5th Cir. 2020).
Related legal case
Smith v. Harris County
|Cite||956 F.3d 311 (5th Cir. 2020)|
|Level||Court of Appeals|