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Estate of Russell v. City of Anniston

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

August 23, 2017

ESTATE OF JEFFREY K. RUSSELL, by and through personal representative Kenley R. Gardner, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF ANNISTON, SHANE DENHAM, GREG FEAZELL, WILLIAM WORTHAM, RANDY GARNER, and JAMES CAMPBELL, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. Introduction and Procedural Background.

         This case stems from the tragic death of Jeffery K. Russell (“Mr. Russell”), who committed suicide in a jail cell at the City of Anniston jail after being arrested on February 20, 2014.

         On June 26, 2015, the Estate of Jeffery K. Russell, by and through personal representative Kenley R. Gardner (“Plaintiff”), filed a complaint (the “Initial Complaint”) against the City of Anniston, Shane Denham (“Defendant Denham”), Greg Feazell (“Defendant Feazell”), Nick Bowles (“Defendant Bowles”), and Fictitious Defendants A, B, and C. On July 21, 2015, the Named Defendants[1] filed their answer, and on August 4, 2015, this action was reassigned to the undersigned. (Docs. 6, 9). On February 25, 2016, the Named Defendants filed an Amended Answer in order to assert new affirmative defenses. (Doc. 13).

         On February 29, 2016, Plaintiff filed an amended complaint (Doc. 14, the “Amended Complaint”). On October 7, 2016, the Named Defendants filed a Motion for Leave To File Answer to Amended Complaint Out of Time, (doc. 22), and on October 10, 2016, the Named Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 23). After the Court granted leave to file an answer to the Amended Complaint and termed the Motion for Summary Judgment as moot, the Named Defendants filed their Answer on October 25, 2016. (Doc. 28).

         On November 9, 2016, the Named Defendants re-filed their Motion for Summary Judgment (doc. 31, the “Motion”) and brief in support (doc. 32). On November 30, 2016, Plaintiff filed a response, and on December 5, 2016, the Named Defendants filed their reply. (Docs. 38, 39).The Motion for Summary Judgment is ripe for this Court's disposition.

         II. Summary Judgment Standard.

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, summary judgment is proper if there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2552, 91 L.Ed.2d 2265 (1986) (“[S]ummary judgment is proper if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.”) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         The party requesting summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the pleadings or filings that it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323, 106 S.Ct. at 2553. Once the moving party has met its burden, Rule 56(c) requires the non-moving party to go beyond the pleadings in answering the movant.[2] Id. at 324, 106 S.Ct. at 2553. By its own affidavits - or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file - it must designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id.

         The underlying substantive law identifies which facts are material and which are irrelevant. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed.2d. 202 (1986). All reasonable doubts about the facts and all justifiable inferences are resolved in favor of the non-movant. Chapman v. AI Transport, 229 F.3d 1012, 1023 (11th Cir. 2000). Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248, 106 S.Ct. at 2510. A dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. If the evidence presented by the non-movant to rebut the moving party's evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may still be granted. Id. at 249, 106 S.Ct. at 2511.

         How the movant may satisfy its initial evidentiary burden depends on whether that party bears the burden of proof on the given legal issues at trial. Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1115 (11th Cir. 1993). If the movant bears the burden of proof on the given issue or issues at trial, then it can only meet its burden on summary judgment by presenting affirmative evidence showing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact - that is, facts that would entitle it to a directed verdict if not controverted at trial. Id. (citing United States v. Four Parcels of Real Property, 941 F.2d 1428, 1438 (11th Cir. 1991)). Once the moving party makes such an affirmative showing, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to produce “significant, probative evidence demonstrating the existence of a triable issue of fact.” Id. (emphasis added).

         For issues on which the movant does not bear the burden of proof at trial, it can satisfy its initial burden on summary judgment in either of two ways. Id. at 1115-16. First, the movant may simply show that there is an absence of evidence to support the non-movant's case on the particular issue at hand. Id. at 1116. In such an instance, the non-movant must rebut by either (1) showing that the record in fact contains supporting evidence sufficient to withstand a directed verdict motion, or (2) proffering evidence sufficient to withstand a directed verdict motion at trial based on the alleged evidentiary deficiency. Id. at 1116-17. When responding, the non-movant may no longer rest on mere allegations; instead, it must set forth evidence of specific facts. Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 358, 116 S.Ct. 2174, 2183, 135 L.Ed.2d 606 (1996).

         The second method a movant in this position may use to discharge its burden is to provide affirmative evidence demonstrating that the non-moving party will be unable to prove its case at trial. Fitzpatrick, 2 F.3d at 1116. When this occurs, the non-movant must rebut by offering evidence sufficient to withstand a directed verdict at trial on the material fact sought to be negated. Id.

         III. Statement of Facts.[3]

         On February 20, 2014, Mr. Russell was arrested and taken to the City of Anniston jail. AF Nos. 1-4.[4] When he was brought in for booking, Mr. Russell was wearing black pants, a blue shirt, and a necktie. AF. No. 5.[5] Anniston Police Department Officer Jay Skinner (“Officer Skinner”)[6] began the booking process, and Corrections Officer Randy Garner (“Officer Garner”) was also present in the booking area. AF No. 6.1.[7]

         It is undisputed that the City of Anniston was responsible for Mr. Russell's contact with Russell.” (Doc. 39 at 4). The Court finds that these facts are irrelevant and are not a basis for this Court's decision one way or another; accordingly, the Court has not included them. However, neither party disputes that Mr. Russell was taken to the City of Anniston jail after his arrest. welfare and safety when he was brought to the jail. AAF Nos. 39, 53.[8] Under the City's written policy, the arresting officer is responsible for part of the booking process, including (1) entering information into the system to complete an arrest report; (2) taking and inventorying an inmate's property; and (3) completing a medical questionnaire for the inmate. AF No. 7.1.[9] While the arresting officer would complete the “medical screening” portion of the prisoner's medical intake form, jail personnel would later complete the “medical intake” portion of the form. AF. No. 8.1. The purpose of the medical intake questionnaire is to gather information to identify and protect the medical or mental health needs of the inmates. AAF No. 41. The answers on the medical intake form are based both on the involved officers' personal observations and the inmate's answers to those questions. AF No. 8.2.

         When they filled out an inmate's medical intake questionnaire, correctional officers are to assess whether an inmate might be a “special needs inmate, ” which includes those individuals who (1) exhibit erratic behavior; (2) exhibit obvious signs of mental problems; (3) exhibit obvious physical problems; or (4) verbally threaten suicide. AF No. 26.2, 26.3. However, the City has no specific training to recognize “special needs inmates.” AAF No. 52.

         In Mr. Russell's case, the front page of the medical screening questionnaire indicated that he was in touch with reality, was capable of responding to questions, was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, had never threatened or attempted suicide, and did not threaten or attempt suicide during the booking process. AF. No. 9.1. The questionnaire listed Mr. Russell's prior health conditions as “septic shock, kidney failure and kidney stones” and noted that he was “a diabetic and require[d] insulin injections.” AF No. 9.2. The back page of the form indicated that Mr. Russell had no mental illness and had never threatened or attempted suicide. AF No. 9.3.

         Mr. Russell was not considered a special needs inmate, and he did not indicate to anyone at the Anniston Police Department that he was suicidal in any way. AF Nos. 27, 30. Officer Campbell testified that “[a]t no time, during the period of Mr. Russell's incarceration and prior to his death, did I notice Mr. Russell acting erratically or in any way which would have led me to believe that he was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, mentally unstable, physically disabled, depressed, and/or suicidal.” AF No. 31.[10]

         Officer Skinner completed his portion of Mr. Russell's booking process, including the front page of the medical intake form, and took Mr. Russell to a bench outside of the jail's control room. AF No. 10.1. Officer Skinner did not take Mr. Russell's tie from him during the initial booking process. AF No. 10.2. At the time of Mr. Russell's arrest, a tie was a very unusual item of apparel for an arrestee to be wearing when booked into the City of Anniston jail.[11]

         After an arresting officer completes his part of the booking process, an inmate is typically turned over to a member of the jail staff, a corrections officer, or a corrections sergeant. AF No. 11.1.[12] It is the policy of the City of Anniston to escort inmates to their cells and lock the inmates into their cells. AAF No. 32. It is also the policy of the City of Anniston that inmates be divested of any items, including belts and shoestrings, that an inmate could use to harm him or herself. AAF Nos. 33, 42. The City of Anniston jail does not have a designated changing area for inmates; therefore, arrestees might change into inmate clothing in their individual cells, the padded cell, or the print photograph room. AF No. 16. The City of Anniston does not have a written policy that inmates are to change into clothing inside their jail cells, nor does it have a written policy mandating that corrections officers be present when inmates change clothes. AAF Nos. 34, 35, 49, 50.

         Mr. Russell was fingerprinted and photographed by James Campbell (“Officer Campbell”). AF No. 13. Officer Campbell then took Mr. Russell, who was still wearing his black pants, blue shirt, and necktie, to cell A-2, where he changed into his inmate attire. AF Nos. 14, 15.1. Officer Campbell was not present when he changed. AF No. 15.2. After Mr. Russell changed, Officer Campbell retrieved his personal clothing but failed to ensure that the tie was in his personal property. AF No. 18.1; AAF No. 47.[13] Though Officer Campbell had been trained to secure all personal belongings after an arrestee changed into jail-issued clothes, Officer Campbell did not notice that Mr. Russell had kept the tie after changing. AF No. 18.2-18.3. There were multiple opportunities for Mr. Russell to have been searched before he committed suicide. AAF No. 45.

         On the morning of February 21, 2014, at 9:01 a.m., Mr. Russell was found dead in his cell by a fellow inmate. AF No. 19.1. He had hanged himself with the necktie that Officer Campbell had overlooked when retrieving Mr. Russell's personal clothing. AF No. 19.2; AAF No. 44. Approximately an hour prior to Mr. Russell's suicide, Corrections Officer William Wortham (“Officer Wortham”) had performed an inmate check on Mr. Russell. AF No. 20.1; AAF No. 56. When he did so, Mr. Russell asked Officer Wortham to come back and talk to him, which he agreed to do after completing his rounds. AF No. 20.2.; AAF No. 57. After Officer Wortham finished his rounds and was back in the control room, Mr. Russell “buzzed in” and asked to speak to Defendant Feazell.[14] AF No. 20.3; AAF No. 58. Mr. Russell was told that Defendant Feazell was out of the building but would speak to Mr. Russell when he returned. AF Nos. 20.4, 23.1; AAF No. 59.

         No correctional officer went to check on Mr. Russell after he asked to speak with Officer Wortham and Defendant Feazell. AAF Nos. 60, 61. Mr. Russell was last seen alive at approximately 8:48 a.m., thirteen minutes before he was discovered by the fellow inmate. AF No. 21. When Defendant Feazell returned to the jail between 8:45 a.m and 9:00 a.m, he heard a commotion, walked over to the A-section of the jail, and met Officer Wortham, who informed him that Mr. Russell had hanged himself. AF No. 23.2.

         In February 2014, the City of Anniston Police Department had a written Standard Operating Procedures Manual (the “S.O.P. Manual”), which included written policies regarding the arrest, intake, booking, processing, and incarceration of individuals. AF No. 32. Pursuant to the City of Anniston's policies and standard operating procedures, correctional officers were asked to do inmate checks “as often as possible.” AF No. 25.1. Although there was no written policy requiring inmate checks at certain frequencies, it was highly recommended that checks be done at least on an hourly basis. AF No. 25.2; AAF No. 43.

         As of the date of his deposition on August 18, 2016, Officer Bowles[15] testified that, to his knowledge, there had not been another suicide at the City of Anniston jail since he began working for the City in 2000. AF No. 29. An investigation into Mr. Russell's suicide revealed two violations of policy. AAF No. 54. Officer Garner received a reprimand because he entered Mr. Russell's personal property list into the computer and should have “double checked” that all of Mr. Russell's property was present. AF No. 6.2.

         IV. ...


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