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Fifth Circuit Holds Guard Who Let Detainee Hang Himself Entitled to Qualified Immunity

On July 2, 2021 United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed a district court's denial of qualified immunity to three officers employed by the Coleman County Jail (CJC) in an action alleging the guards stood by and watched detainee Derrek Monroe's hang himself to death at the jail.

Monroe was arrested in September 2017, and booked at the CJC. A screening form completed during intake indicated that Monroe said he "wished [he] had a way to" kill himself and that he had attempted suicide two weeks prior; previously received psychiatric services; had been diagnosed with "some sort of schizophrenia," and displayed other signs of mental illness and emotional disturbance.

Two days after Monroe attempted to commit suicide by hanging. Sheriff Leslie Cogdill spoke with Monroe and sought the intake form reflecting Monroe's mental health issues. Instead of seeking emergency admission at a facility providing mental health treatment, Cogdill and Jailer Jessie Laws continued to hold Monroe in his cell.

On October 1, Laws began his shift as the only jailer on duty. The jail typically has two jailers on duty during weekdays but only one during nights and weekends due to budgetary considerations.

Monroe went to the phone in his cell and became visibly angry and began beating the toilet in his cell with a toilet plunger. Laws then began mopping the area outside of Monroe's cell. While Laws mopped, Monroe wrapped the phone cord around his neck while Laws continued mopping. As he strangled himself with the cord, Laws made a phone call to Brixey. Laws did not call Emergency Medical Services. About a minute or two after the strangulation began, Monroe's body stopped moving. Throughout the next five minutes, Laws looked into the cell several times, but he never unlocked or entered it.

After Brixey arrived at the jail ten minutes later Laws took the cell key out of his pocket, unlocked and entered the cell, and unwrapped the cord from Monroe's body. Neither Laws nor Brixey attempted to resuscitate Monroe, but they called paramedics, who began performing chest compressions nearly 15 minutes after he hung himself. Monroe was taken to the hospital, where he died the following day.

Patsy Cope filed on behalf of Monroe’s estate against Cogdill, Brixey, and Laws, alleging that they violated the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause because they were objectively unreasonable in their treatment of a pretrial detainee and denied Monroe appropriate medical care.

Cogdill, Brixey, and Laws moved for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. The district court denied the motion. As to Laws, the district court determined that "watching Monroe wrap the phone cord around his neck and then failing to assist Monroe to free him from the cord will have to be analyzed by a jury to determine whether his conduct was reasonable under the circumstances."

As to Cogdill and Brixey, the district court determined that they were not entitled to qualified immunity because "evidence clearly demonstrates a high and obvious risk of suicide by maintaining a policy of housing suicidal inmates in a cell with a phone (and attached cord)."

Cogdill, Brixey, and Laws timely filed an interlocutory appeal.

First, the Court address whether Laws' failure to immediately intervene after Monroe strangled himself and decision to instead wait until another jailer arrived was constitutionally unlawful under clearly established law. The Court concluded, requiring a jailer to enter a cell without back-up "would create an unenviable Catch-22: Either enter the cell alone and risk potential attack, or take appropriate precautions and incur liability under § 1983" and Laws' decision to wait for Brixey before entering the cell did not violate any clearly established constitutional right.

As to Brixey and Cogdill the court concluded that "the record does not suggest that any inmate had previously attempted suicide by strangulation with a phone cord; nor is there non-speculative evidence that Brixey and Cogdill were aware of this danger" and thus they "did not violate a clearly established constitutional right."

The Court determined that CJC "employs only one weekend jailer due to budgetary constraints. Our precedent suggests that municipalities, not individuals, should generally be held liable for city policies. Thus, at the time of the suicide, no clearly established precedent suggested that Brixey and Cogdill could be liable under an episodic-acts theory for staffing the jail in line with Coleman County's budget and policies."

Based upon that all three defendants were entitled to qualified immunity and the Court reversed the district court's decision and rendered judgment in the officers' favor. See: Cope, v. Cogdill, Case No. 19-10798 (5th Cir. 2021).

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Related legal case

Cope, v. Cogdill