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Letson v. Mitchell

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northwestern Division

March 30, 2015

DAN WAYLAN LETSON, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
GENE MITCHELL, Lawrence County Sheriff, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION[1]

STACI G. CORNELIUS, District Judge.

This is a civil rights action maintained by Michael Letson, as personal representative for the Estate of Dan Waylan Letson. The plaintiff brings claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Gene Mitchell (Sheriff of Lawrence County, Alabama), James Baker (Chief Jailer for Lawrence County), Steven Frye and Tim Flannagin (Lawrence County Deputy Sheriffs), Quality Correctional Health Care ("QCHC), [2] and Dr. Johnny Bates for deliberate indifference to the serious medical needs of Dan Letson in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. (Doc. 30). The plaintiff also brings state law claims for negligence and/or wantonness against the defendants. ( Id. ). The plaintiff was afforded an opportunity to amend his original complaint in response to the defendants' motions to dismiss that pleading. ( See Docs. 13, 14, 17, 18, 29 & 32). Currently pending are a motion to dismiss the amended complaint filed by Sheriff Mitchell, Jailer Baker, and Deputies Frye and Flannagin (Doc. 34) and a motion for leave to file a motion to dismiss the amended complaint made by QCHC and Dr. Bates (Doc. 43). The motions have been fully briefed (Docs. 39, 41, 46), and the parties have orally argued their positions ( see Doc. 47; docket entry dated March 4, 2015). For the reasons discussed below, the motions are due to be granted.

I. Standard of Review

"Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires only a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ' in order to give the defendant fair notice of what the... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). Rule 8 "does not require detailed factual allegations, ' but it demands more than an unadorned, the defendant-unlawfully-harmed me accusation." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 677 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). "[L]abels and conclusions, " "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action, " and "naked assertion[s] devoid of further factual enhancement" are insufficient. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 557) (internal quotation marks omitted).

To survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim on which relief may be granted brought pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). "The plausibility standard is not akin to a probability requirement, ' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). "Where a complaint pleads facts that are merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, it stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.'" Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557). A court will not "unlock the doors of discovery for a plaintiff armed with nothing more than conclusions." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79. Rather, a complaint must contain "enough fact to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence" of the defendant's liability. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556.

II. Amended Complaint

The amended complaint alleges as follows: Dan Letson had a history of physical and mental health problems, including alcohol addiction. (Doc. 30 at ¶ 12). On August 15, 2011, Deputy Frye swore out a warrant for Dan Letson's arrest for permitting livestock to run at large in violation of § 3-5-2 of the Alabama Code. ( Id. at ¶ 14). Dan Letson was arrested and jailed, and he immediately bonded out of jail. ( Id. ). He was intoxicated at the time Deputy Frye arrested him. ( Id. ).

On or about August 30, 2011, Deputy Flannagin swore out a warrant for Letson's arrest, again for permitting livestock to run at large. ( Id. at ¶ 15). The State of Alabama filed a motion to revoke Dan Letson's bond, but rather than grant such motion, the District Court of Lawrence County, Alabama directed that Dan Letson be brought before the court upon his arrest. ( Id. ). When Deputy Frye or Deputy Flannagin[3] arrested Dan Letson and brought him before the Lawrence County District Court on August 30, 2011, Dan Letson was so intoxicated he could not communicate or stand. ( Id. ). The Lawrence County District Court noted Dan Letson "was intoxicated to such a degree he could not effectively communicate with the Court.'" ( Id. at ¶ 16). Dan Letson was immediately taken to jail and was released on bond. ( Id. ).

On or about October 11, 2011, the State of Alabama filed another motion to revoke Dan Letson's bond. ( Id. at ¶ 17). A writ of arrest was entered, and Deputy Frye arrested Dan Letson immediately. ( Id. ). He was in such a state of intoxication at the time of his arrest he had to be carried to the officers' vehicle. ( Id. ). He was placed in jail and was not permitted to bond out until he "sobered up." ( Id. ) He did not receive any medical treatment, although the Lawrence County Jail had a nurse on staff, as well as a contract with Dr. Bates of QCHC. ( Id. ).

On or about October 13, 2011, Dan Letson was brought before the Lawrence County District Court for a bond revocation hearing. ( Id. at ¶ 18). Deputies Frye and Flannagin were present. ( Id. ). Dan Letson's condition had deteriorated to such a degree he required the assistance of officers to stand before the court. ( Id. ). The judge immediately ordered that Dan Letson be taken for medical treatment. ( Id. ). Deputies from the Lawrence County Sheriff's Department took Dan Letson to Bradford Medical Center for alcohol treatment. ( Id. at ¶ 19). But when they arrived at Bradford, Dan Letson's condition was so critical, Bradford refused to accept him. ( Id. ). The deputies were instructed to take Dan Letson to an emergency hospital immediately. ( Id. ). Dan Letson was admitted to Lawrence Baptist Medical Center and then to Shoals Hospital, where he was treated from October 13, 2011 to November 14, 2011. ( Id. at ¶ 20). While hospitalized, Dan Letson suffered the effects of having gone through severe alcohol withdrawal without medical assistance while detained, and he continued to suffer these effects until his death on January 27, 2013. (Id. at ¶¶ 1, 20).

The plaintiff alleges employees of Sheriff Mitchell knew Dan Letson was in withdrawal at the time of his arrest and detention and, given Sheriff Mitchell has been sued twice before for failing to provide medical treatment to intoxicated individuals suffering similar symptoms, knew Dan Letson required medical attention. ( Id. at ¶ 21 (citing Harper v. Lawrence County, Alabama, No. 08-0658 (N.D. Ala. filed April 14, 2008); Parker v. Lawrence County, Alabama, No. 07-1011 (N.D. Ala. filed May 31, 2007))).

According to the amended complaint, Sheriff Mitchell has supervisory authority over the Lawrence County Jail. ( Id. at ¶ 40). Furthermore, Sheriff Mitchell is responsible for developing and implementing policies and procedures regarding medical care at the jail, and he shares this responsibility with QCHC and Dr. Bates by way of an agreement. ( Id. at ¶¶ 35, 40). The plaintiff alleges the defendants were aware of the need for appropriate policies, procedures, and training regarding the identification and handling of inmates addicted to alcohol and suffering from or likely to suffer from withdrawal and failed to develop adequate policies and procedures or to train jail staff in this respect. ( Id. at ¶ 23). In fact, according to the plaintiff, the defendants established a custom or policy of denying or delaying medical treatment for serious health conditions, including alcohol withdrawal, as well as a custom or policy of using outside medical providers and emergency medical resources that was so restrictive inmates were regularly denied prompt medical care for serious health conditions, including alcohol withdrawal. ( Id. at ¶ ¶ 24, 31). The plaintiff cites Harper and Parker as providing examples of these customs and policies and, together with personal observations, inmate complaints, and general common sense, as putting the defendants on notice these customs and policies caused inmates to experience unnecessary pain and suffering. ( Id. at ¶¶ 25, 33). Finally, the plaintiff alleges the defendants failed to adequately supervise, staff the Lawrence County Jail, fund medical services for the jail, and screen inmates for serious medical conditions upon their entry into the jail. ( Id. at ¶ 41).

According to the amended complaint, the foregoing customs and policies were implemented as a result of an insurance agreement among QCHC, Sheriff Mitchell, and Lawrence County that indemnifies Sheriff Mitchell and his agents against claims related to health care services and led Sheriff Mitchell and Jailer Baker to ignore and refuse to address systemic deficiencies regarding medical care at the Lawrence County Jail. ( Id. at ¶ 34).

III. Discussion

Sheriff Mitchell, Jailer Baker, and Deputies Frye and Flannagin argue (1) Dan Letson lacks standing to maintain this action, (2) the amended complaint fails to state a § 1983 claim against them on which relief may be granted, (3) they are entitled to qualified immunity as to the plaintiff's § 1983 claims against them in their individual capacities, (4) the plaintiff's Eighth Amendment claims are due to be dismissed because Dan Letson was a pre-trial detainee, not a prisoner, and (5) they are entitled to absolute immunity as to the plaintiff's state-law tort claims against them. (Doc. 35). The plaintiff concedes Dan Letson should be terminated as a plaintiff. (Doc. 39 at 1-2).[4] The plaintiff further concedes his state-law tort claims against Sheriff Mitchell, Jailer Baker, and Deputies Frye and Flannagin are due to be dismissed. ( Id. at 15). Whether the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment or the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment affords protection from deliberate indifference to serious medical needs in this case, [5] the amended complaint fails to state a § 1983 claim against Sheriff Mitchell, Jailer Baker, Deputy Frye, or Deputy Flannagin on which relief may be granted, and these defendants are entitled to qualified immunity.

In their motion for leave to file a motion to dismiss the amended complaint, QCHC and Dr. Bates argue allowing them to file a motion to dismiss the amended complaint approximately six months after the plaintiff filed the amended complaint will not prejudice the plaintiff. (Doc. 43). The plaintiff does not challenge the motion for leave to file and has addressed the arguments made in the underlying motion to dismiss. ( See Doc. 46). Rule 6(b)(1)(B) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides, "[w]hen an act may or must be done within a specified time, the court may, for good cause, extend the time... on motion made after the time has expired if the party failed to act because of excusable neglect." Fed.R.Civ.P. 6(b)(1)(B). Although the motion to dismiss may be untimely for not being filed within the time prescribed by Rule 15(a)(3) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the motion for leave to file is due to be granted because the plaintiff will not be prejudiced by any untimely filing of a motion he does not oppose and has had an opportunity to address. See Pioneer Inv. Services Co. v. Brunswick Associates Ltd. Partnership, 507 U.S. 380, 395 (1993) (factors considered in determining excusable neglect include danger of prejudice to non-movant, length of delay ...


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