Cathy Havener Greer Defends Sheriff in Jail Suicide Case

January 2, 2019 06:07 PM


In a jail suicide case defended by IADC member Cathy Havener Greer (Member, Wells, Anderson & Race, LLC) and Katherine M. L. Pratt (Special Counsel, Wells, Anderson & Race, LLC), the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the summary judgment granted by the district court in favor of the defendant sheriff. See Estate of Robert Vallina v. County of Teller Sheriff’s Office, et al., 2018 U.S. App. Lexis 34062. The case, brought under 42 U.S.C § 1983 and the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Colorado’s wrongful death statute, alleged that the sheriff was deliberately indifferent to the deceased inmate’s serious medical needs and that the inmate died as a result of certain wrongful acts of the sheriff.

Robert Vallina was arrested and booked into the Teller County Detention Center in May 2014, and despite a history of mental health issues, he denied both present suicidal ideation and prior suicide attempts. The state court ordered a competency evaluation for Mr. Vallina at the Colorado Mental Health Institute-Pueblo. He was at CMHI-P from July 29, 2014 to August 29, 2014, and during that time was determined to be competent to stand trial. A psychiatrist at CMHI-P evaluated Mr. Vallina before his discharge and prepared the August 29, 2014 discharge report diagnosing him as malingering because he did not want to return to the jail. The report also indicated that he was “not aggressive or suicidal” and that he had no acute medical problems and was not prescribed any medication.

Mr. Vallina was returned to the Detention Center on August 29, 2014, where he was seen by a nurse and was cleared to be housed in the general population. At no time after his return to the facility did he demonstrate any conduct that indicated suicidal ideation. Mr. Vallina died by suicide in the early hours of September 2, 2014, less than an hour after sheriff’s deputies had conducted a routine cell check and saw him standing at the door to his cell.

The Estate urged the Tenth Circuit to apply an “objective reasonableness” standard rather than the standard of deliberate indifference to serious medical needs. The Estate argued that Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 135 S. Ct. 2466 (2015) altered the standard for conditions of confinement and inadequate medical care claims brought by pretrial detainees. The Second, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits have interpreted Kingsley as changing the standard and have adopted an objective test requiring reckless disregard. The Fifth, Eighth, and Eleventh Circuits have held that Kingsley applies only to excessive force claims brought by pretrial detainees, not claims related to conditions of confinement or inadequate medical care.

The Tenth Circuit concluded that the Estate’s claim failed under either standard as the Estate showed neither subjective disregard of a known risk nor objectively reckless disregard of a serious medical concern.

The Tenth Circuit found that a prison official “does not act recklessly or with deliberate indifference by failing to act to avert the suicide of a detainee who displays no outward indicators of suicidal ideation, actively denies suicidal ideation, and has been cleared by a psychologist, a psychiatrist, and other medical professionals to be detained in general population.”

The Court also affirmed summary judgment on the state law wrongful death claim because the Estate had not identified any wrongful act by the sheriff resulting in the death of Mr. Vallina.

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