A Lesson in Pleading: Utah Jail Suicide Complaint Fails for Alleging Failure to Train Rather than Failure to Provide Care
by David M. Reutter
On May 3, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for defendant jailers in a lawsuit seeking damages for a Utah detainee’s suicide. Not only bad for the survivors of the unfortunate man, the case also offers a lesson in pleading errors: It was based solely upon claims of failure to implement sufficient safeguards or to train guards on suicide prevention, rather than alleging deliberate indifference.
Before the Court was the appeal of the estate of Troy Bradshaw, who was arrested on June 13, 2014, on a charge of driving under the influence. When booked into Utah’s Beaver County Correctional Facility (BCCF), an Initial Arrest Assessment (IAA) revealed that Bradshaw, 37, had previously considered suicide but had not been thinking about it at the time. However, he had a brother who committed or attempted suicide, and he was intoxicated. Moreover, Bradshaw stated he would kill himself if placed in a cell.
After the IAA, guards put Bradshaw on suicide watch, forcibly placing him in a cell after he refused to enter voluntarily. In violation of jail policy, guards did not create a suicide watch log or place Bradshaw in a safety smock. The next day, he was moved to a regular cell, where some guards arriving later were unaware Bradshaw was on suicide prevention.
When asked if he was considering suicide during a second assessment later that day, Bradshaw answered, “Yes.” Based on that assessment, Bradshaw was placed back on suicide watch. Before he was returned to his cell, though, a nurse directed that he be given a blanket, and guards provided him a full bed roll with sheets. At breakfast on June 15, 2014, Cpl. Randall Rose observed Bradshaw to be in good spirits. The detainee was last seen alive at 11:45 a.m. Just after noon he was found dead in his cell; he had hanged himself with a pillowcase or sheet.
Represented by Salt Lake City attorney Eric Boyd Vogeler, Bradshaw’s estate sued Beaver County, Cpl. Rose and Sheriff Cameron Noel in federal court for the District of Utah. Proceeding under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Plaintiff accused them of violating Bradshaw’s civil rights by their deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs. Specifically, the complaint pointed to BCCF’s alleged failure to implement sufficient safeguards or to train its guards on suicide prevention and how to complete shift change reports. When the district court granted Defendants summary judgment on all claims, the estate appealed.
The estate alleged not only that guards violated BCCF’s suicide-prevention policy – even providing proof of the violations – but also that the County was deliberately indifferent by failing to train its guards on preventing suicide, failing to train them on preparing shift-change reports, or failing to install monitoring cameras in certain cells.
But even though “volatile prison environments demand consistent training on institutional policies,” the Tenth Circuit allowed, “failing to follow prison policy is not a constitutional violation in and of itself.” Rather, successful § 1983 “municipal – and supervisory – liability claims involve a constitutional violation or pattern of constitutional violations.”
In this case, the Court concluded: “Violating policy alone supports neither.”
“We treat jail-suicide claims, like Plaintiff’s, as failures to provide medical care,” the Court continued. “Such claims require proof that a prison official acted with deliberate indifference to the detainee’s serious medical needs,” violating a prisoner’s Eighth Amendment guarantee of freedom from cruel or unusual punishment, or a pretrial detainee’s Fourteenth Amendment guarantee not to be punished without due process.
The evidence showed guards not only had the suicide-prevention policy available to them but were also provided initial and annual training on the policy. Yet Bradshaw’s suicide was the first at the jail, the Court noted, so no pattern of constitutional violations was present. Thus judgment was properly entered for the County.
Moreover, the Court continued, qualified immunity (QI) was properly granted to Sheriff Noel because he had no actual knowledge of Bradshaw’s substantial risk of suicide. Cpl. Rose was likewise entitled to QI since the Tenth Circuit had not established at the time – in 2014 –a right to proper implementation of suicide-prevention protocols. Thus, Plaintiff could not rely on the jail’s suicide prevention policy to argue that Cpl. Rose knew or should have known that Bradshaw was at risk of suicide. Therefore the district court’s order was affirmed. See: George v. Beaver County, 32 F.4th 1246 (10th Cir. 2022).
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