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Fikes v. Abernathy

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

May 14, 2018

PHILLIP CORDELL FIKES, as the personal representative of the Estate of Phillip David Anderson, Plaintiff,
v.
RON ABERNATHY, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OF OPINION

          L. SCOTT COOGLER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court are Defendant Tuscaloosa County, Alabama's ("Tuscaloosa" or "the County"), motion for summary judgment (doc. 78), and Defendants', Sheriff Ron Abernathy ("Abernathy"), Chief Eric Bailey ("Bailey"), Sergeant Kenneth Abrams ("Abrams"), and Detention Officer Patrick Collard's ("Collard") (collectively "the law enforcement defendants") motion for summary judgment (doc. 84). Plaintiff Phillip Cordell Fikes ("Fikes" or "Plaintiff") brought this suit as the personal representative of the Estate of Phillip David Anderson ("Anderson" or "decedent"), alleging deliberate indifference to serious medical needs under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law claims for negligence, wantonness, wrongful death, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. For the reasons stated below, Tuscaloosa's motion for summary judgment is due to be granted, and the law enforcement defendants' motion for summary judgment is due to be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Background [1]

         Anderson was arrested on Saturday, February 7, 2015, based on an outstanding warrant for contempt of court arising out of his failure to appear at a child support hearing in Tuscaloosa County. He was taken to the Tuscaloosa County jail ("the jail"), where he remained until February 15, 2015, the day of his death.

         During the intake process, Anderson informed jail officials about his health problems and daily medications. [2]Anderson answered in the affirmative when asked whether he had any current illnesses and health problems. On February 9, 2015, Anderson was seen by Dr. Phillip Bobo (" Dr. Bobo"). The nursing notes from the visit indicate that Dr. Bobo prescribed naproxen for Anderson. According to Plaintiff, Anderson did not receive any of the daily medication he required. Consequently, on Thursday, February 12, 2015, Anderson's daughter, Erica Fikes ("Erica"), visited the jail attempting to deliver Anderson's thyroid medication. Erica testified that the jail officials would not accept the medication because it was only in its original bottle, but not in the original box.

         Healthcare for inmates in the jail is conducted by Whatley Health Services, Inc. ("Whatley"), a private, non-profit, community health center, pursuant to a contract between Whatley and Tuscaloosa. Whatley in turn contracts with a physician and also nurses to provide care. Tuscaloosa also has a contract with Capstone Health Services Foundation, an Alabama non-profit corporation, to provide psychiatric services to the inmates at the jail. There was a charge of twenty-five dollars ($25.00) for an inmate to see the doctor and obtain medical care at the jail at all times during Anderson's incarceration.

         Anderson was housed in cell block 11 ("CB 11") during the entirety of his time in the Tuscaloosa Jail. Abrams and Col lard each served as shift supervisors over the area which included CB11 during a number of shifts within the relevant time frame. The Tuscaloosa County Policy and Procedure Directives ("The Directives") state that "detention officers and other personnel are trained to respond to health-related situations within a four minute response time." (Doc. 86- 7 at 23.) The training program that personnel undergo includes instruction in the recognition of signs and symptoms, as well as information concerning required action in potential emergency situations. The Directives contain a provision explaining that while the determination of when to transfer an inmate to an emergency facility and decisions regarding transportation by ambulance are usually made by medical staff, "extenuating circumstances may require the prompt decision by the Shift Supervisor for immediate transport of [an] inmate to the designated emergency facility via EMS." (Id.)

         According to Fikes, beginning with one of his first meals in jail and continuing throughout his detention, Anderson felt ill and was unable to keep his food down. He was in severe pain throughout his stay at the facility, and spent time prostrate on the floor moaning and holding his stomach, asking for help. On Friday, February 13, 2015, Anderson was administered medication by Tuscaloosa County Jail medical staff for constipation. The following day, Saturday, February 14, 2015, at approximately 8:18 p.m., Detention Officer Jeremiah Van Horn ("Van Horn") notified the Supervisor on duty that Anderson was complaining of stomach pain, shortness of breath, and that he had been unable to hold down food for a number of days. Supervisor Anderson then called Nurse Bridgette Thomas ("Nurse Thomas") who advised that Anderson had been seen and was being treated.

         Later that same day, Anderson was taken to the medical clinic by Detention Officer Clay Montgomery ("Montgomery") who told the staff there that Anderson needed to be seen. Upon arrival at the clinic, Anderson was moaning and groaning and holding his stomach stating that he did not feel well. Nurse Thomas and another nurse took Anderson's temperature and blood pressure, and then consulted with Dr. Bobo. The nurses informed Montgomery that the doctor could not see Anderson until the following Monday, February 16th. Anderson continued to moan and groan and proceeded to lie down on a bench in the medical center. The nurses administered a liquid medication that Anderson could not keep down, he vomited for a number of minutes while gagging, moaning and holding his stomach. Montgomery was advised that there was nothing else that could be done until Monday. Anderson then was escorted back to CB 11 all the while holding his stomach and verbalizing that he was in pain.

         At approximately 11:00 p.m. on Saturday evening, Supervisor Raymond Anderson, Sergeant Michael Hall and Sergeant Darren Strong responded to CB 11 where they visually observed Anderson lying on his bed moaning, groaning, sweating and holding his stomach. He was unable to speak to the officers when they asked him what was wrong. They proceeded to the medical clinic to notify the medical personnel. The nurses on duty informed the officers that Anderson was being treated for constipation and he would be put on a liquid diet the following day.

         On Sunday, February 15, 2015, at approximately 12:45 a.m., Detention Officers Edward Pierce ("Pierce") and Meagan Franklin ("Franklin") responded to noises coming from CB 11. They observed Anderson lying on the floor between two tables moaning and holding his stomach. Pierce and Franklin notified Nurse Thomas who entered the cellblock and looked at Anderson. She stated that she had already notified her supervisor, Nurse Elizabeth Evers, as well as Dr. Bobo of Anderson's condition and was instructed by them not to send Anderson to the hospital. A little while later, at approximately 1:01 a.m., Supervisor Raymond Anderson called Pierce and instructed him to take Anderson to the medical clinic where Nurse Thomas saw Anderson, but did not administer any medication. Anderson was then returned to his cellblock.

         Abrams, a deputy sheriff who serves as a Sergeant with the criminal investigation division, and Eric Bailey, a deputy sheriff who serves as the Chief of Jail Operations began their shift as Shift Supervisors at 7 a.m. on Sunday the 15th. Though the details are disputed, at one point during their shift, they checked on Anderson. Multiple inmates had reported that, the evening prior, Anderson had hollered in pain all throughout the night.

         At approximately 12:04 p.m., Detention Officer David Cannon ("Cannon") responded to CB 11 due to inmates kicking on the door. Cannon observed Anderson lying on the floor and inmates holding his head, the inmates stated he had passed out on the way to the bathroom. Cannon approached Anderson and asked him what was wrong but, Anderson did not respond. A wheelchair was obtained by Collard at the direction of the nurse. Cannon then called a "code 10-33" which is the code for a medical emergency. Nurse Stephanie Kaiser and Sergeant Abrams arrived in CB 11 and initiated CPR (Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation). The AED (Automated External Defibulator) was also utilized to assist with life-saving measures. Some inmates in CB 11 contacted Anderson's family to inform them of the situation. NorthStar EMS, Inc., responded to the facility and assisted with lifesaving measures and, ultimately transported Anderson to DHC Regional Medical Center's Emergency Room.

         Bailey, Chief of Jail Operations, arrived at DCH and spoke with Anderson's family regarding his condition. Shortly after being transported, Anderson was pronounced dead-the cause of death was determined to be a perforated duodenal ulcer. The Tuscaloosa Sheriff's Office conducted an investigation of Anderson's death soon afterwards.

         III. Motions for Summary Judgment

         A. Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is appropriate "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact[3] and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A dispute is genuine if "the record taken as a whole could lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party." Id. A genuine dispute as to a material fact exists "if the nonmoving party has produced evidence such that a reasonable factfinder could return a verdict in its favor." Greenberg v. BellSouth Telecomms., Inc., 498 F.3d 1258, 1263 (11th Cir. 2007) (quoting Waddell v. Valley Forge Dental Assocs., 276 F.3d 1275, 1279 (11th Cir. 2001)). The trial judge should not weigh the evidence, but determine whether there are any genuine issues of fact that should be resolved at trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986).

         In considering a motion for summary judgment, trial courts must give deference to the non-moving party by "view[ing] the materials presented and all factual inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Animal Legal Def. Fund v. U.S. Dep't of Agric, 789 F.3d 1206, 1213-14 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970)). However, "unsubstantiated assertions alone are not enough to withstand a motion for summary judgment." Rollins v. TechSouth, Inc., 833 F.2d 1525, 1529 (11th Cir. 1987). Conclusory allegations and "mere scintilla of evidence in support of the nonmoving party will not suffice to overcome a motion for summary judgment." Melton v. Abston, 841 F.3d 1207, 1220 (11th Cir. 2016) (per curiam) (quoting Young v. City of Palm Bay, Fla., 358 F.3d 859, 860 (11th Cir. 2004)). In making a motion for summary judgment, "the moving party has the burden of either negating an essential element of the nonmoving party's case or showing that there is no evidence to prove a fact necessary to the nonmoving party's case." McGee v. Sentinel Offender Servs., LLC, 719 F.3d 1236, 1242 (11th Cir. 2013). Although the trial courts must use caution when granting motions for summary judgment, "[s]ummary judgment procedure is properly regarded not as a disfavored procedural shortcut, but rather as an integral part of the Federal Rules as a whole." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 327 (1986).

         B. Tuscaloosa's Summary Judgment Motion

         On September 19, 2016, Tuscaloosa filed a motion to dismiss (doc. 31), which was granted in part and denied in part on May 25, 2017. (Doc. 45.) As explained in the Court's Memorandum of Opinion, the only claim remaining against Tuscaloosa is that it improperly funded healthcare at the Tuscaloosa County Jail via involvement in an allegedly deliberate plan to delay medical treatment in order to lower medical costs-which in turn caused Anderson's death. (See Doc. 45 at 8 ("[T]he only liability that Tuscaloosa can incur under § 1983 is for not appropriating the funds that the sheriff needs for maintenance of the jail."[4] (citing Turquitt v. Jefferson Cty., Ala., 137 F.3d 1285, 1290 (11th Cir. 1998))).

         Fikes failed to respond to Tuscaloosa's motion for summary judgment; however, this Court is nonetheless obligated to determine whether Tuscaloosa is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the undisputed facts. [5] See Trs. of Cent. Pension Fund of lnt'l Union of Operating Eng'rs Participating Emp'rs v. Wolf Crane Serv., Inc., 374 F.3d 1035, 1039 (11th Cir. 2004) (A district court "cannot base the entry of summary judgment on the mere fact that the motion was unopposed but, rather, must consider the merits of the motion." (internal quotation marks omitted)). As such, the Court will address the merits of Tuscaloosa's motion.

         Tuscaloosa County is required under Alabama law to provide funds for both the upkeep of the jail and necessary medical care for the inmates held in the jail. Ala. Code § 14-6-19 (1975). At the federal level, the Due Process Clause (for pretrial detainees)[6] and the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires local governments to provide necessary medical care to incarcerated persons. Goebert v. Lee Cty., 510 F.3d 1312, 1326 (11th Cir. 2007) ("Deliberate indifference to a prisoner's serious medical needs is a violation of the Eighth Amendment."). In order to prevail on a claim against a county under § 1983, a plaintiff must show that "the constitutional violation occurred as a result of a county policy[, ] . . . the [county's] action was taken with the requisite degree of culpability, and . . . a direct causal link [exists] between the [county's] action and the deprivation of federal rights." Cagle v. Sutherland, 334 F.3d 980, 986 (11th Cir. 2003) (quoting Bd. of Cty. Commas of Bryan Cnty.} Okla. v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 404 (1997)). Culpability can be established by showing deliberate indifference, which requires "(1) subjective knowledge of a risk of serious harm; (2) disregard of that risk; (3) by conduct that is more than mere negligence." McElligott v. Foley, 182 F.3d 1248, 1255 (11th Cir.1999). The U.S. "Supreme Court has recognized that correctional inmates 'must rely on prison authorities to treat [their] medical needs; if the authorities fail to do so, those needs will not be met.' Federal and state governments therefore have a constitutional obligation to provide minimally adequate medical care to those whom they are punishing by incarceration." Harris v. Thigpen, 941 F.2d 1495, 1504 (11th Cir. 1991) (citing Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 103 (1976)). A county is not absolved of this duty solely by contracting with a private medical provider. Ancata v. Prison Health Servs., Inc., 769 F.2d 700, 705 (11th Cir. 1985).

         Tuscaloosa proffered the affidavit of Bill Lamb ("Lamb"), the Chief Financial Officer for Tuscaloosa County, who prepares and administers the budgets for all county offices, to show that its funding was more than minimally adequate. He testified that during the fiscal year in which Anderson was incarcerated, the county expended nearly $1.8 Million on medical care at the Tuscaloosa County Jail, on an inmate population averaging less than 600. (See Doc. 79-1.) Of that total, $1, 383, 291.78 was for medical services and $402, 617.15 was allocated for drugs and medical supplies. When divided, the sum equals approximately $3, 000 per inmate for medical care. Additionally, Lamb testified that "no requests for funding of medical services or supplies were denied during [the] fiscal year, and the County [ ] never refused to pay any medical bill arising from the jail." Tuscaloosa's contract for medical services with Whatley provides for routine doctor visits to the jail, and for a doctor to be on call for emergencies. It also provides for around-the-clock nursing services and a clinic within the jail facility which is stocked and equipped by the county. (See Doc. 79-4.)

         The Court finds the funding amount to be adequate, especially when considered in conjunction with the number of inmates. The Court also finds that Tuscaloosa did not breach its duties to properly fund the jail, or more specifically, to properly fund the medical treatment for those held in the jail, and finds no direct causal link between Tuscaloosa's policies and ...


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