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Reinstating Suit by Louisiana Detainee’s Mother Over His Jail Suicide, Fifth Circuit Schools Lower Court in Meaning of “Standing”

by Matt Clarke

On February 14, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reinstated the claim of a woman whose son fatally hanged himself in Louisiana’s Bossier Parish jail in March 2019. In doing so, the Court said that a district court erred in dismissing the case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction because it apparently confused a lack of “prudential” standing with a lack of constitutional standing. In this case, the former was true, since a mother may not bring a wrongful death action under state law for a child who also left a surviving spouse or child. But the latter was not true, since Article III of the U.S. Constitution grants federal courts jurisdiction over such a case.

The dead man, Randall Abraugh, 28, was “both medicated and intoxicated” when he arrived at Bossier Maximum Security Facility (BMSF), the Court recalled, and “he had a history of mental health treatment.” That was sufficient for jail personnel to identify him as “‘a detainee who should be followed for alcohol withdrawal syndrome and possible delirium tremens,’” the Court continued, quoting the complaint, but jail officials instead allegedly “placed him in a cell without an operable source of water and failed to monitor him or provide any medication or liquids,” where he was found unresponsive the next day.

After he was transferred to a hospital and died, his mother, Karen Abraugh, filed the complaint in federal court for the Western District of Louisiana against officials at BMSF and Bossier Parish, including Administrator Bill Altimus, accusing them of deliberate indifference to her son’s serious medical need, in violation of his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. She later filed an amended complaint to substitute his wife, Kelsey, and minor child, Raeshelle, as plaintiffs.

The district court granted Defendants’ motion to dismiss, holding that Abraugh lacked Article III standing to bring suit because Louisiana law doesn’t permit a parent to sue for a child’s wrongful death when a spouse or children are left alive. Moreover, the district court also said it could not permit substitution of plaintiffs because, absent a plaintiff with Article III standing, it had no subject-matter jurisdiction.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit noted that Louisiana Civil Code articles 2315.l(A) and 2315.2(A) establish a hierarchy of standing in civil suits, prioritizing who may bring a claim and prohibiting those lower in the hierarchy from doing so when there are survivors higher in the hierarchy. But, the Court continued, there are two kinds of standing: prudential standing and Article III standing. A person who is legally entitled to enforce the right at issue has prudential standing—in this case the decedent’s surviving wife and child. To have Article III standing, however, a plaintiff need only allege the “trifecta” of a “well-known injury, causation, and redressability,” the Court said, citing Norris v. Causey, 869 F.3d 360 (5th Cir. 2017).

Quoting Int’l Primate Prot. League v. Adm’rs of Tulane Educ. Fund, 895 F.2d 1056 (5th Cir. 1990), the Court said it has “repeatedly affirmed” the legal principle that “standing in federal court is determined entirely by Article III and depends in no degree on whether standing exists under state law.” Abraugh had Article III standing because she alleged an injury—the loss of a child—that was in fact “fairly traceable to the challenged actions of the defendant,” and likely redressable by a favorable decision. Therefore, the district court erred when it ruled it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction.

The Court explained that the issue was a failure to name the real party in interest, as required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 17(a)(l). But such pleading defects are subject to correction by filing an amended complaint, which would relate back to the original complaint for time limitation purposes, the Court noted, leaving that for the district court to calculate. At this stage, the Court concluded, Plaintiff could amend her federal civil rights complaint to substitute plaintiffs who had prudential standing under state law, so it reversed the judgment of the district court and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Abraugh is represented by attorneys Amy G. Day, Nichole M. Buckle and Carmouche Bokenfohr of Buckle & Day, P.L.L.C., in Shreveport, as well as Paul J. James of James & Carter, P.L.C. in Little Rock, Arkansas. See: Abraugh v. Altimus, 26 F.4th 298 (5th Cir. 2022).

The case has now returned to the district court, where the life of a Medical Review Panel was extended on May 11, 2022, granting it 364 days to issue an opinion. PLN will report that outcome and additional case developments. See: Abraugh v. Altimus, USDC (W.D. La.), Case No. 5:20-cv-00252. 

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Related legal cases

Abraugh v. Altimus

Abraugh v. Altimus