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Sixth Circuit Revives Suit by Pregnant Mentally Ill Michigan Detainee Allegedly Kicked in Her Womb by Jail Guard, Losing Baby

On July 17, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit deemed testimony by a pregnant mentally ill detainee no less credible than that of her Michigan jailers—one of whom allegedly kicked her in the stomach and caused her to lose her unborn child.

That presumption was extended, however, only enough to determine there was a triable issue of fact as to whether Jaquetta Ann Coopwood was provided notice of the jail’s grievance process—she claimed she wasn’t—without reaching the question whether her mental illness should excuse her failure to exhaust those administrative remedies, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e.

Coopwood was pregnant when she stopped taking her anti-psychotic medications, due to concerns about the effect on her baby, on August 13, 2017. That same day she allegedly fatally stabbed her mother and was arrested. Booked into the Wayne County Jail, she was still off her meds on August 17, 2017, when she was allegedly kicked in the stomach by guard Sgt. Jonith Watts, leaving Coopwood with “a bloody discharge from her vagina.”

At intake into the jail, she had denied receiving mental health treatment, though staff with the jail’s private healthcare contractor, Wellpath, was already on notice of her history of mental illness and diagnoses of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The staffer who conducted the screening was also aware of this history but “did not raise concerns about the inconsistency,” the Court later recalled.

Over the next several days, after the alleged assault by Watts, Coopwood reported pain and continued bloody discharge. She was hospitalized at least three times but not seen by an OB/GYN. She received an antidepressant, though not the anti-psychotic medications she had been taking before being jailed.

On October 19, 2017, Coopwood was seen by a psychiatrist, who noted that she had been psychotic for an indeterminate period, did not know why she was in custody and had “seriously derailed and internally inconsistent” thinking. She was also hallucinating. She was placed back on her psychotropic medications but continued to exhibit mental health problems, leading to a determination that she was incompetent to make medical decisions for herself. In November 2017 Coopwood was returned to the hospital, where her baby was stillborn.

With the aid of West Bloomfield attorney Kevin A. Landau, she filed suit in August 2020 in federal court for the Eastern District of Michigan, raising claims of excessive force against Watts, deliberate indifference to her serious medical needs against Wayne County, plus a state-law claim of gross negligence.

Defendants moved to dismiss, arguing that Coopwood had failed to exhaust the jail’s grievance procedure as required by PLRA. The district court construed the motion as one for summary judgment and granted it, reasoning that circuit case law did “not recognize a mental capacity exception” to PLRA’s exhaustion requirement.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit noted that “[d]uring [Coopwood’s] period of significant mental and physical trauma, the Jail expected [her] to fully comply with its grievance procedures.” But the Court said it could consider Coopwood’s medical records during the period she was in jail because, contrary to Defendants’ arguments, those records had been considered by the lower court and were not first presented on appeal. Likewise, Coopwood could argue her claims that jail staff thwarted her attempts to make oral complaints or file a grievance, as that argument also had been presented to the district court.

On the merits of the summary judgment ruling, the Sixth Circuit wrote that PLRA’s exhaustion requirement “hinges on the availab[ility] of administrative remedies: An inmate, that is, must exhaust available remedies, but need not exhaust unavailable ones.”

Coopwood stated she did not recall being informed about the grievance process at booking. Her attempts to raise complaints and file a grievance were allegedly denied. So there was a disputed issue of material fact as to whether the grievance process was available to her. As the Court observed, the jail “noticeably made no assertion that [there was] a record of Coopwood signing the Grievance Process Form,” which should have been provided at intake.

The Court also noted it had not yet addressed whether a grievance procedure is “unavailable” to a prisoner whose medical or mental health condition precludes filing a grievance. But it found a collection of such cases to cite from other circuits, including Rucker v. Griffen, 991 F.3d 88 (2d Cir. 2021) and Smallwood v. Williams, 59 F.4th 306 (7th Cir. 2023). However, the Court declined to rule on the issue, since there was a material fact in dispute as to whether jail staff had thwarted her efforts to file a grievance.

Thus the district court’s ruling was reversed and the case remanded. Before the Court, Coopwood was represented by attorney Felipe De Jesus Hernandez with the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center in Washington, D.C., with an amicus brief in support filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. See: Coopwood v. Wayne Cty., 74 F.4th 416 (6th Cir. 2023).

The case has now returned to the district court, and PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Coopwood v. Wayne Cty., USDC (E.D. Mich.), Case No. 2:20-cv-12092.  

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Related legal case

Coopwood v. Wayne Cty.