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Eleventh Circuit Denies Qualified Immunity to Jail Guards Who “Did Nothing” in Face of Florida Detainee’s Suicide Threats

by David M. Reutter

Finding that two guards at Florida’s Bay County Jail (BCJ) did “essentially nothing to prevent” a pretrial detainee from committing suicide, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed a lower court’s denial of qualified immunity (QI) to them on February 15, 2022.

The detainee, Logan M. Turner, 29, was taken to BCJ following his arrest on April 18, 2018, for driving without a license, giving false identification, and possessing methamphetamine and related drug paraphernalia. He said at in-take, “I will kill myself if I have to be locked up,” so jail officials placed him in the suicide-precaution dorm. But less than two weeks later, on May 1, 2018, he was released to the jail’s general population.

There he remained a few weeks without incident until May 18, 2018, around 2:00 p.m., when Turner asked guard Marcus Roberts to speak to BCJ’s Chief about a medical issue. The request was initially denied, but when Turner repeated it an hour later, Roberts took him to see BCJ’s mental health coordinator. Turner denied being suicidal, but he was “crying so inconsolably” that he could not be clearly understood, according to the complaint later filed on his behalf. He eventually calmed down and was returned to general population.

He’d been there less than an hour before Roberts spotted Turner slumped over and unresponsive near the phones. He was restrained and placed in a holding area. Lt. Kenneth Phillips ordered Turner to be brought to BCJ’s behavioral-observation unit, where he was placed in the unit’s shower, and surveillance video showed he was obviously distressed. Eventually, he stood up and screamed, among other things, “Take me to the hospital now,” “You’re killing me,” and “You’re fucking with my head.”

When no one answered, Turner picked up a pair of pants on the floor and tied one of the legs to the top of the shower door. He appeared to be tying a noose with the other leg when detainee James Letson noticed and walked over to talk Turner out of killing himself. Guard Joseph Mastro also observed the incident on video feed in the central control room and informed Phillips, whom Letson believed had overheard his conversation with Turner.

Letson told the guard that he had just “diverted” a “big incident.” Phillips, however, said that Turner was “just trying to get attention.” He ordered Turner placed in the behavioral unit, where his cell would be one of over 100 monitored by video and he would have access to the pants he was wearing as well as a mattress, some tissue, a blanket, and two sheets.

Shortly after shift change, another detainee informed guard Freddie Furman that Turner “was going to harm himself.” Furman phoned Mastro, who said not to worry: Phillips had “dealt with the situation,” and Turner should “stay where he was at.” Around 9:00 p.m., Turner was found hanging from a bedsheet tied to the top bunk’s metal frame. He died two days later.

Donald Turner, as personal representative of Turner’s estate, filed suit in federal court for the Northern District of Florida in May 2019, alleging deprivation of Turner’s due-process rights by jail officials, also lodging a state wrongful-death claim against Phillips and Mastro. When Defendants moved for summary judgment, the district court granted it to all but Sheriff Tommy Ford on the state-law claim as well as the two guards on those claims and also the federal civil rights claims, rejecting their argument that they were entitled to QI on those. See: Turner v. Phillips, 547 F. Supp. 3d 1188 (N.D. Fla. 2021).

Guards Appeal Denial of QI

Phillips and Mastro then appealed to Eleventh Circuit. Taking up the case, the Court noted that QI can be overcome only “by showing that (1) ‘the defendant violated a constitutional right,’ and (2) ‘the violated right was ‘clearly established,’” quoting Corbitt v. Vickers, 929 F.3d 1304 (11th Cir. 2019). Though the guards claimed “a strong likelihood that [Turner] would kill himself indisputably did not exist,” the Court said that “surely a reasonable jury could disagree.”

“Mastro heard Turner screaming that the jail was ‘killing’ him and, only minutes later, watched him tie what even Mastro identified as a ‘noose,’” the Court recalled, noting that the guard “was concerned enough to direct Phillips to speak with Turner.” Then, as Phillips did so, “he came close enough to the shower that a jury could conclude that he heard Letson’s conversation with Turner—a conversation in which Letson says he persuaded Turner not to kill himself.”

Citing Greason v. Kemp, 891 F.2d 829 (11th Cir. 1990), the Court said that “when prison officials ‘directly responsible for inmate care’ know that ‘an inmate has attempted, or even threatened, suicide, their failure to take steps to prevent that inmate from committing suicide can amount to deliberate indifference.’”

As to the second prong of the QI challenge, the guards argued that even if they violated Turner’s civil rights, they couldn’t be on notice since the closest case law in the Eleventh Circuit was Snow v. City of Citronelle, 420 F.3d 1262 (11th Cir. 2005), and the prisoner who committed suicide in that case was not monitored via video as Turner was. But the Court batted down that argument, noting that the similarity between the two cases was more striking: In both, guards “essentially ‘did nothing’ to prevent a suicide that, arguably, was likely to occur.”

“Both the [guard] in Snow and the [guards] here simply left suicidal detainees in a cell with items that they could—and did—use to harm themselves,” the Court observed.

The guards also tried to muddy the waters of liability by noting their shift had ended when Turner hanged himself. Yet it was “their decision to keep Turner in the behavioral unit” that supplied him with “the sheet he used to hang himself just hours later,” the Court noted, adding that Mastro told the guard replacing him “that Turner should remain in the unit—even though Mastro had been told that Turner said that he planned to kill himself.”

“That is evidence enough to create a substantial issue of causation,” the Court concluded, affirming the district court’s denial of summary judgment on the civil rights claim.

Finally, on the state-law claims, the Court said the statute “might differ from the relevant federal standards, but it offers no further protection.” Just as the “federal standard for deliberate indifference amounts to recklessness,” the Court said, citing Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994), “so does the standard of ‘wanton and willful’ conduct under Florida law” as laid out in Williams v. City of Minneola, 619 So. 2d 983 (Fla. Ct. App. 1993).

Thus the judgment of the district court was affirmed. Turner was represented by attorneys Daniel M. Soloway and Daniel Finelli of Soloway Law Firm in Pensacola and Gillis E. Powell, Jr., of Powell Powell & Powell in Crestview. See: Turner v. Phillips, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 4179 (11th Cir.).

The case has now returned to the district court, where a jury trial is scheduled for October 2022. PLN will report its outcome. See: Turner v. Phillips, USDC (N.D. Fla.), Case No. 5:19-cv-00140. 

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