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Tenth Circuit Revives Suit Against Colorado Jail Guard in Death of Mentally Disabled Detainee

by David M. Reutter

On May 25, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reinstated a claim against a guard at Colorado’s Mesa County Detention Facility (MCDF) in the death of a mentally disabled detainee. Reversing a district court’s grant of summary judgment to the guard, the Court also reinstated a claim against the county that employed him. But it affirmed summary judgment in favor of all other defendants in the case.

The case was brought by the estate of Tomas Beauford, 24, who had an IQ of 52 and operated at the level of a young child. In addition to his intellectual disability, he suffered “bipolar disorder, paranoid schizophrenia, attention hyperactivity disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder.” He also had epilepsy and took anti-seizure medication, plus he had an implanted Vagus Nerve Stimulator (VNS). Often called a “pacemaker for the brain,” the device sends a shock through the nervous system to interrupt a seizure.

On March 1, 2014, Beauford was arrested for assault and unlawful sexual conduct at Grand Junction Regional Center, a state residential hospital for the developmentally disabled. Allegedly, he hit a fellow patient and was sexually inappropriate with a staffer. Mesa County Sheriff’s deputies then booked him into MCDF.

Beauford had a magnet bracelet to trigger his VNS, but it was not with him when he died — it was confiscated during intake. Luckily, he didn’t need it during his first six weeks at the jail, even though he allegedly refused his medications about fifty percent of the time.

But his luck ran out on the night of April 15, 2016. Guards Peter M. Dalrymple and Richard D. Perkinson were on duty with nurse Renee Workman when they performed a security check at 8:40 p.m. and found Beauford in his cell under a blanket and shaking.

Workman and Perkinson entered the cell and confirmed that Beauford was having a seizure. Workman administered treatment, and the seizure passed. Subsequent security checks were clear up to 11:55 p.m., when Dalrymple found Beauford face-down on his cell floor with his head under a desk. He appeared to be breathing, though, and since he’d slept in unusual positions before, the guard moved on.

Because of Beauford’s seizure history, Dalrymple made his next round early at 12:15 a.m. He found Beauford in the same position but “could not tell for sure” if he was breathing. Nonetheless, the guard continued his rounds and did not contact nurse Workman for another ten minutes. When she arrived, she immediately saw Beauford was not breathing and began resuscitation efforts. However, Beauford was pronounced dead at a hospital a few hours later.

With the aid of attorneys David A. Lane, Michael P. Fairhurst, Thomas D. McFarland, and Andrew J. McNulty of Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP, Beauford’s mother, Tiffany Marsh, filed suit on behalf of his estate in federal court for the District of Colorado against the county and its privately contracted jail healthcare provider, Correct Care Solutions, LLC — now Wellpath — along with their employees. Accusing them of deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs, in violation of his rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, she also alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. ch.126 § 12101 et seq. Defendants claimed qualified immunity (QI) and moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted in January 2021. The Estate appealed.

The Tenth Circuit then affirmed the lower court’s judgment except as to Dalrymple — and Mesa County by extension. Citing Gutteridge v. Oklahoma, 878 F.3d 1233 (10th Cir. 2018), the Court said the question was this: Did the guard’s conduct violate (1) “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights” that (2) “a reasonable person would have known” about?

First, the right to prompt medical attention was clearly established at the time, the Court said. Second, the guard should have known that substantial harm might result from waiting ten minutes to seek medical attention for the prisoner. Dalrymple questioned whether Beauford was in “obvious” medical distress, but he contradicted that when he also said that Workman arrived at 12:25 a.m., looked inside the cell and “automatically . . . muttered, ‘Oh, shit, start CPR compressions.’” Therefore he was not entitled to QI; a jury would have to decide whether he was aware when he stopped by the cell ten minutes earlier at 12:15 a.m. that Beauford may not have been breathing. And only after that could the municipal liability claim against Mesa County be assessed. See: Estate of Beauford v. Mesa Cty., 35 F.4th 1248 (10th Cir. 2022).

The case has now returned to the district court, and PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Estate of Beauford v. Correct Care Solutions LLC, USDC (D. Colo.), Case No. 1:16-cv-00851. 

Additional source: KCNC

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