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Fifth Circuit Reinstates Lawsuit Over Texas Detainee’s Asphyxiation by Jail Guards

by Matt Clarke

On July 13, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed dismissal of a lawsuit filed over the death of a Texas detainee during an altercation with jail guards.

Kelli Leanne Page, 46, was awaiting trial at the Coryell County Jail for “several months” before her death on October 8, 2017, the Court recalled. That day, “[w]hat began with … tapping her hairbrush on the cell door ended forty-five minutes later with two jailers’ applying force to her lower back and neck until she died.”

When the tapping began around 7:50 a.m., guard Wesley Pelfrey went to Page’s cell. During their 10-minute talk, she allegedly threatened to “stab [him] in the eye with a hairbrush,” the Court noted. But Page calmed down – for a few minutes. Then the tapping resumed. Pelfrey returned to the cell with fellow guard Steven Lovelady, who ordered the detainee to turn around and get handcuffed through the food slot in the cell door. When she refused, he pepper-sprayed her – three times in the face – as she retreated to the rear of the cell.

After that, although there was surveillance video of the incident, the facts are “hotly contested,” the Court noted. In the federal civil rights lawsuit Page’s parents filed, John and Susie Fairchild claimed Lovelady “slammed [Page] to the floor,” the Court said. The guard, however, “testified that he ‘attempted to turn her around and she suddenly let go of the sink, which caused her to fall.’”

Once on the floor, guards struggled with the woman – who stood 5’6”, weighed 220 pounds and had a history of mental and physical ailments. Lovelady, who outweighed her by only 10 pounds, tried and failed to handcuff her. During the struggle, she kicked and bit him, briefly gaining control of the handcuffs. Nonetheless, she ended up face-down on the floor, her hands cuffed behind her back. At that point, she was not resisting, the Court recalled. “Lovelady was “sitting atop Page with his knee on her back,” and “Pelfrey, who weighted 390 ponds, pressed his forearm against her neck.

“Page was held face down in this manner for over two minutes,” the Court continued.

When jailers finally checked, she was unresponsive and soon pronounced dead. An investigation by the Texas Rangers decided that she died of a heart condition – despite an autopsy that listed the cause of death as homicide by asphyxiation – so the jailers were not criminally charged. [See: PLN, Apr. 2022, p. 22].

The Fairchilds’ suit, filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, accused the jailers of using excessive force, also blaming the county for not reigning them in with better training and supervision. But the federal court for the Western District of Texas decided the force used was reasonable and granted defendants summary judgment. Plaintiffs appealed.

The Fifth Circuit began by noting that the district court’s determination followed an analysis laid out in Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 576 U.S. 389 (2015). When it concluded, all factors except the extent of injury favored the jailers. But even that was enough to keep the case alive for a jury to hear, the Court said. The lower court accepted as fact the jailers’ claims and ignored the other possible interpretation of the evidence – including the surveillance video.

“Although reasonableness in excessive force cases is viewed from the officer’s perspective, that does not mean we automatically accept his testimony about what happened,” the Court said, citing Tolan v. Cotton, 572 U.S. 650 (2014). Indeed, “the facts must be viewed in favor of the nonmovant” in making a decision on summary judgment.

“Construing the video in favor of the plaintiffs shows that a jury could reach a different conclusion on a number of facts that impact the reasonableness calculation” made under the Kingsley analysis, the Court said. True, the jailers were entitled to qualified immunity while Page was actively resisting, but not after she was handcuffed; as laid out in Timpa v. Dillard, 20 F.4th 1020 (5th Cir. 2021), the Court said, “a jury could conclude that officers no longer faced an ‘immediate threat of harm’ once the arrestee was ‘restrained, surrounded, and subdued.’” Thus summary judgment was reversed for defendants and the case remanded. See: Fairchild v. Coryell Cty., 40 F.4th 359 (5th Cir. 2022).

The case has now returned to the district court, where plaintiffs continue to be represented by Dallas attorney Bruce K. Thomas, along with attorneys from Dean Malone PC, also in Dallas. Trial is currently set for August 2023, and PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Fairchild v. Coryell Cty., USDC (W.D. Tex.), Case No. 6:19-cv-00029.

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