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Hutchinson v. Cunningham

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

March 26, 2018

JOSHUA HUTCHINSON, Plaintiff,
v.
DERRICK CUNNINGHAM, D.T. MARSHALL, WANDA J. ROBINSON, BARBARA PALMER, KEVIN J. MURPHY, MELVIN TURNER, QCHC, INC., JOHNNY BATES, DONALD KERN, JERRY GURLEY, DR. WHITE, DIONNE BAKER, SHARON SMITH, TERESA VARDEN, DAFFANY ABBINGTON, TIFFANY CLARK, DEBORAH MUSE, KIM PATTERSON, and MICHELLE BEASLEY, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          W. Keith Watkins CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Joshua Hutchinson spent 229 days in solitary confinement at the Montgomery County Detention Center (the “jail”) as a pretrial detainee because of his sleep apnea. Or rather, he was placed in a suicide watch cell segregated from other inmates as an accommodation of his sleep apnea because the jail staff concluded that the CPAP machine that Mr. Hutchinson needed to sleep could be used as a weapon by inmates in general population. So it is that Mr. Hutchinson spent his time awaiting trial alone in a jail cell in which the lights were always on, with no access to the outdoor recreation facilities or other programs made available to other inmates. And so it is that, as a result of his time spent in isolation, Mr. Hutchinson suffered psychological harm, “transform[ing] from a person with a normal presentation to a withdrawn, non-communicative, angry, and paranoid individual who would refuse to eat, refuse medical care, and engage in other antisocial behaviors.” (Doc. # 70, at 10.)

         These are a few of the well-pleaded factual allegations contained in Mr. Hutchinson's Amended Complaint, in which he brings claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the jail staff responsible for his placement, the company- QCHC, Inc.-that contracted with the County to provide medical services to inmates, and the individual QCHC nurses and physicians responsible for medical treatment at the jail. All defendants move to dismiss.[1] Before the court is the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation (Doc. # 116), to which Mr. Hutchinson has timely filed objections (Doc. # 117). Upon an independent review of the record and a de novo determination of those issues to which Mr. Hutchinson objects, the court finds that the Magistrate Judge's Recommendation is due to be adopted.

         I. JURISDICTION AND VENUE

         The court has subject-matter jurisdiction over this action under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. The parties do not contest personal jurisdiction or venue.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The court reviews objections to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation de novo, and it “may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         A motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure tests the sufficiency of the complaint against the legal standard set forth in Rule 8: “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). In ruling on a motion to dismiss, courts “must accept the well pleaded facts as true and resolve them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Paradise Divers, Inc. v. Upmal, 402 F.3d 1087, 1089 (11th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). To survive Rule 12(b)(6) scrutiny, however, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). If there are “enough fact[s] to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence” to support the claim, there are “plausible” grounds for recovery, and a motion to dismiss should be denied. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556.

         III. DISCUSSION

         The Magistrate Judge provided a thorough recitation of the factual and procedural history of this case, which Mr. Hutchinson does not dispute and which the court need not repeat. (See Doc. # 116, at 4-11.) Mr. Hutchinson objects to two of the Magistrate Judge's recommendations: first, that his § 1983 claim for deliberate indifference to serious medical needs against QCHC be dismissed with prejudice; and second, that his § 1983 deliberate indifference claims against the Sheriff Defendants be dismissed with prejudice.[2] Each objection will be considered in turn.

         A. QCHC

         Mr. Hutchinson alleges that QCHC as an entity was deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs and can be held liable under § 1983 “due to the actions of its final policymakers, Drs. Bates and Kern.” (Doc. # 70, at 15.) The Magistrate Judge agreed that § 1983 liability could attach to QCHC because it was acting as the functional equivalent of a municipality when it contracted to provide medical care at the jail. And the Magistrate Judge noted that an entity can be liable under a “policy or custom” theory if, among other ways, a plaintiff alleges that the constitutional violations resulted from the actions of an official with final policymaking authority. (Doc. # 116, at 32.) The Magistrate Judge concluded, however, that Mr. Hutchinson's amended complaint does not state a claim upon which relief can be granted because it fails to allege that the decisions by Drs. Kern and Bates were not subject to review, nor does it specify the actions, conduct, or areas over which they exercised final authority. (Doc. # 116, at 33-34.) “In fact, the amended complaint is completely silent on the scope of Drs. Kern and Bates's final policymaking authority for QCHC and certainly does not allege that either Dr. Kern or Dr. Bates had final policymaking authority over an inmate's housing or the specific conditions of an inmate's confinement. The most [Mr.] Hutchinson alleges is that Drs. Kern and Bates were final policymakers for QCHC.” (Doc. # 116, at 34.)

         The Supreme Court has explained that the “final policymaker” theory of municipal liability attaches “only where the decisionmaker possesses final authority to establish municipal policy with respect to the action ordered.” Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 481 (1986) (emphasis added). In other words, the theory provides a plausible claim for relief “where-and only where-a deliberate choice to follow a course of action is made from among various alternatives by the official or officials responsible for establishing final policy with respect to the subject matter in question.” Id. at 483.

         Construing the facts in the light most favorable to Mr. Hutchinson, the amended complaint alleges that (1) Drs. Bates and Kern “acted as final policymakers for QCHC, ” (2) they provided care for Mr. Hutchinson, knew of his deteriorated mental state, and refused to do anything, and (3) therefore the policy or custom of QCHC was to deny Mr. Hutchinson the care he needed by failing to take any steps to address the conditions of his confinement. (Doc. # 70, at 12, 14- 15.) As the Magistrate Judge pointed out, the problem is the link. There are no allegations to suggest that when Drs. Bates and Kern were individually treating Mr. Hutchinson that they were establishing the custom or policy of ...


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