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Eighth Circuit Revives Suit Over North Dakota Juvenile Detainee’s Suicide

by David M. Reutter

On August 2, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed dismissal of a lawsuit alleging a private North Dakota juvenile home was liable for the suicide of a 12-year-old detainee. Because the facility and its employees were operating under contract with the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR), the Court held they were state actors and therefore subject to liability.

The child, identified only as A.A.R., was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, depression and substance abuse. She stole a vehicle, threatened to attack others, damaged property and resisted arrest, court filings said. Finding her “delinquent,” “disobedient” and “unruly” on May 16, 2018, a state juvenile court removed her from her parents’ custody for a period of one year.

DCR then took full custody of A.A.R. On August 20, 2018, after a suicide attempt, the agency placed her in the Dakota Boys & Girls Ranch (DBGR), a private psychiatric facility with whom it contracted for juvenile care. At DBGR, A.A.R. was placed on “line of sight restriction,” meaning she must remain in view of a staff member at all times.

On October 2, 2018, A.A.R. experienced an emotional breakdown. Attempting to escape her residential pod, she held a staffer “hostage” in an office. For that, she was barred from attending school classes and sanctioned with loss of privileges that “greatly upset” her, the Court later recalled. Around 9 p.m., she asked to be admitted to the bathroom. After a brief roundtrip back to her room, she returned with a bedsheet under her shirt.

Two staffers, Sahuna Faye Holweger and Ebony James, both saw A.A.R. grab something from her room. Holweger also noticed her shirt looked “bunchy.” Yet neither inspected the girl or stopped her from entering the bathroom. Instead, Holweger went to move A.A.R.’s mattress to the pod’s common area as required by procedure. In doing so, she saw a handwritten note the girl had left saying that A.A.R. “deserves to DIE!” A.A.R. committed suicide in the bathroom.

In January 2021, her parents, Manda and Alfonzo Roberson, filed suit in federal court for the District of North Dakota. Proceeding under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, they accused Holweger and James of deliberate indifference to A.A.R.’s serious mental health needs, in violation of her Eighth Amendment guarantee. Their suit also alleged DBGR failed to train its staff properly. On October 18, 2021, the district court ruled that Defendants were not state actors, and it granted their motion to dismiss.

On appeal, neither party contested the fact that DBGR had authority to provide medical treatment for a person in state custody. The question, the Eighth Circuit said, turned on whether Defendants were state actors. It found that North Dakota had a constitutional duty to provide A.A.R. with medical care. Moreover, DCR outsourced this obligation to DBGR. That relationship with the state made DBGR and its employees state actors. “The Ranch’s months-long treatment of A.A.R. reinforces that it assumed the State’s role in her medical care,” the Court wrote. As such, the district court’s order was reversed. See: Roberson v. Dakota Boys & Girls Ranch, 42 F.4th 924 (8th Cir. 2022).

The case has now returned to the district court, where the Robersons continue to be represented by attorneys from Robins Kaplan LLP in Minneapolis, including Andrew J. Noel, Robert Bennett, Greta Weissner, Kathryn H. Bennett and Marc E. Bettinsky. A trial has been set for October 19, 2024, and PLN will continue to report case developments as they are available. See: Roberson v. Dakota Boys & Girls Ranch, USDC (D.N.D.), Case No. 3:21-cv-00003. 

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