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Suit Over California Detainee’s Suicide Survives Corporate Shell Game by Wellpath and HIG Capital

by Jacob Barrett

On February 7, 2022, the federal court for the Eastern District of California allowed claims to proceed against Nevada County and a group of its jail guards for the 2019 suicide of detainee Linda Miller, who died just five days after a transfer back to the jail in nearby Sutter County, which followed her unsuccessful suicide attempt while in custody of the Nevada County lockup that no one bothered to mention when she left.

In a previous decision on October 30, 2020, the Court largely denied motions to dismiss claims against the privately contracted health care provider at both county jails, Wellpath, and its owner, HIG Capital, finding that the complaint adequately alleged that “the companies under the ‘Wellpath’ umbrella were not really separate from HIG, but rather instruments that HIG wields to artificially divorce its profits from its liabilities.” See: Estate of Miller v. Cty. of Sutter, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 204517 (E.D. Cal.).

In their second amended complaint filed after that decision against the two firms, as well as Nevada County Sheriff Shannon Moon, Sutter County Sheriff Brandon Barnes and several of their employees, the mother and son of the dead woman, Linda Miller, summarize the sad end of her life.

After struggling with drug addiction and mental illness since her teens, Miller had a son and her life took a turn for the better: She went to drug abuse and recovery classes, saw a counselor and went back to college. Once sober, she became an ambassador for her rehabilitation program and worked full time, even achieving financial independence.

But in the summer of 2018, Miller was in a head-on car crash that killed two people and left her in a coma. Confined to a wheelchair after the wreck, she developed chronic pain, which she managed with a prescription for opioids until she began to self-medicate with more opioids bought on the street and then heroin.

A few months later, the Camp Fire ignited in the mountains above her Paradise home and destroyed it, along with her belongings. She had no insurance. On top of that she was then charged with manslaughter for her role in the car crash.

Miller was still in a wheelchair recovering from surgeries when she was arraigned and remanded to custody at the Sutter County Jail (SCJ), with her bail set at $1 million. At intake she told SCJ staff about her injuries and drug use. Her partner also called the jail to warn about Miller’s drug addiction and her suicide risk, but somehow that information never made it to her file. She was assigned to an ordinary cell in the general jail population.

An unnamed SCJ guard sergeant allegedly became concerned that the jail was unable to tend to Miller “due to her medical issues.” The SCJ commander then called the Nevada County Jail (NCJ), which agreed to take Miller “as a courtesy.”

Despite a written policy to refer people in Miller’s situation to medical care “immediately,” NCJ did not refer her or review her medical records. A Wellpath nurse listed Miller’s “seizure medications, surgeries, chronic opioid use and severe pain,” also noting that she was “using heroin and had night sweats, a cough, fever, weight loss and a loss of appetite, and was spitting up.” But Miller was not assigned to a cell where she could be observed and treated, and her condition worsened.

Later that night, “after suffering from violent withdrawal symptoms, Miller nearly died in an apparent suicide attempt.” Though she “called for help and became increasingly catatonic,” it was hours before she was treated, and the jail did not call paramedics until she was found unresponsive. Her diagnosis was both opioid overdose and opioid withdrawal.

After Miller was released from the hospital, NCJ guard Sgt. Jeanette Mullenax returned her to SCJ, but she withheld information about Miller’s condition and her hospitalization. Back at SCJ, Miller was in so much pain she could not sit up or sign a form; she lay on the floor during her intake interview. Despite her obvious agony, a Wellpath nurse noted Miller’s pain as “zero on a scale of one to ten.”

Two more days went by before a therapist evaluated Miller’s mental health, but she was not placed on suicide watch. Instead, she was left in an ordinary cell with an ordinary metal bed frame and an ordinary bed sheet, with which she fatally hanged herself the next day, after hearing her bail had increased to $2 million. She had been back in SCJ just five days.

A Family Sues

After her family filed suit, HIG and Wellpath filed a motion to dismiss advancing three arguments: (1) the complaint was too vague to give them notice of who did what; (2) the companies and their employees cannot be held liable as alter egos or as agents and principles; and (3) they cannot be held liable for violating Miller’s civil rights because they did not act under color of state law.

In reaching its October 2020 decision, the Court rejected all three arguments, noting “Plaintiffs allege more than ninety people have ‘died of suicide or a drug overdose while in the custody of a jail served by [Wellpath],’” and that “[g]rand juries in other counties have criticized Wellpath ‘for how it handles prisoner detoxification,’ have found ‘the company’s procedures failed to detect people at risk for alcohol withdrawal,’ and have concluded drug and alcohol withdrawal ‘played key roles in three deaths.’” These allegations sufficed to state a claim that HIG and Wellpath maintained a policy of inaction that amounted to deliberate indifference, the Court said.

That decision also found Plaintiffs’ claims sufficient that Nevada County failed to offer Miller medical care. But it dismissed with leave to amend municipal liability claims against the county for a de facto policy of indifference to detainees’ medical needs.

In its most recent order, the Court said Plaintiffs’ previous pleading defects had been sufficiently cured to “permit the court to infer the plaintiffs could prove that inmates in the Nevada County Jail have been left untreated despite their pleas for help or obvious and urgent needs.”

Claims also survived against Sgt. Mullenax and several “Doe” guards for failure to protect Miller and showing deliberate indifference to her serious medical needs. A claim against Mullenax for loss of the parent-child relationships Plaintiffs enjoyed with the dead woman were also allowed to proceed, as were claims against the “Doe” guards under the state’s Bane Act, which forbids violating someone’s civil rights by force or threat of violence. None of the other defendants moved to dismiss the remaining claims against them, so the Court did not address those. See: Estate of Miller v. Cty. of Sutter, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29273 (E.D. Cal.).

The case is now proceeding toward a scheduled deadline for completing discovery in August 2023, meaning no trial is likely before 2024. Plaintiffs are represented in their suit by attorneys Emily Rose Johns and Daniel M. Siegel of Siegel, Yee, Brunner & Mehta in Oakland, as well as Daniel Stormer and Hanna Chandoo of Hadsell Stormer Renick & Dai LLP in Pasadena. See: Estate of Miller v. Cty. of Sutter, USDC (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:20-cv-00577. 

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Related legal case

Estate of Miller v. Cty. of Sutter