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Strickland v. Health Care Authority of Cullman County

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

January 9, 2020

CAROLYN STRICKLAND, as the personal representative of the estate of her son, Cody Strickland, Plaintiff,
v.
HEALTH CARE AUTHORITY OF CULLMAN COUNTY, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ABDUL K. KALLON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This action arises out of the tragic death of Carolyn Strickland's son, Cody Strickland. According to Ms. Strickland, Cody died because the defendants denied him his right to basic medical care while he was incarcerated at the Cullman County Jail. She asserts claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Dr. Adam Harrison, the jail's medical director; Harrison Medical Consulting, LLC (“HMC”), the jail's medical provider; Mike Hale, a nurse employed by HMC who treated her son at the jail; the Health Care Authority of Cullman County (“HCACC”); Cullman Regional Medical Center (“CRMC”); and several officers at the jail, alleging deliberate indifference to her son's serious medical needs in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Doc. 29. Ms. Strickland also asserts state law medical malpractice claims against Hale, Dr. Harrison, HMC, HCACC, and CRMC based on her allegations that they failed to meet the relevant standard of care regarding her son's treatment. Id.

         This case is currently before the court on Hale's, Dr. Harrison's, and HMC's motions to dismiss, docs. 34; 47, and motion to stay discovery, doc. 52. In their motions to dismiss, the movants argue that Ms. Strickland failed to state a plausible claim for deliberate indifference and that her complaint is an impermissible shotgun pleading. The motions, which are fully briefed and ripe for review, see docs. 34; 37; 38; 47; 49; 50, are due to be granted solely as to the § 1983 claims against Dr. Harrison and HMC and the medical malpractice claim against Dr. Harrison.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), a pleading must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” “[T]he pleading standard Rule 8 announces 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, 678 (2009) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). Mere “‘labels and conclusions'” or “‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action'” are insufficient. Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). “Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders ‘naked assertion[s]' devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) permits dismissal when a complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. When evaluating a motion brought under Rule 12(b)(6), the court accepts “the allegations in the complaint as true and construe[s] them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Hunt v. Aimco Props., L.P., 814 F.3d 1213, 1221 (11th Cir. 2016). However, “[t]o survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must . . . ‘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 complaint states a facially plausible claim for relief “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. In other words, the complaint must establish “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. See also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

         II. RELEVANT FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Mr. Strickland was a work release inmate housed in the Cullman County Jail when he became ill. Doc. 29 at 3. On February 24, 2017, Mr. Strickland “requested to go to medical, ” where Hale treated him. Id. at 4. By the next afternoon, Mr. Strickland's condition had severely deteriorated, and Betty Johnson, a jailer, took him to see Hale again. Id. At that time, Mr. Strickland “was pale, lethargic, barely responsive, and having difficulty breathing, ” and he “reported being nauseous, recent vomiting, coughing up blood, diarrhea, and chest pain.” Id. Johnson “made sure Hale understood all of [Mr. Strickland's] severe symptoms despite [Mr. Strickland's] limited ability to fully communicate them.” Id. Allegedly, Hale observed that Mr. Strickland had a fever, rapid breathing, an elevated heart rate, and an oxygen saturation level of 93.[1] Id. According to Ms. Strickland, her son's symptoms “clearly indicated sepsis, ” and the standard of care required evaluation and treatment in a hospital, or, at a minimum, contacting Dr. Harrison, Hale's supervisor, for guidance. Id. And, Ms. Strickland alleges that Hale and Johnson recognized that her son needed to go to the hospital. Id. at 5. Despite the severe symptoms, Hale sent Mr. Strickland “back to his housing in work release, ” and did not contact Dr. Harrison or take any other action to obtain medical care. Id.

         Mr. Strickland's condition deteriorated further. Id. at 6-7 Other inmates informed jail staff that Mr. Strickland “needed to go to the hospital due to severe nausea and vomiting, severe difficulty breathing, general weakness and non-responsiveness, and other symptoms.” Id. at 7. But, the overnight jail staff did not check on Mr. Strickland, or call Hale or Dr. Harrison. Id.

         Johnson took Mr. Strickland to see Hale again the following morning before 8:00 a.m. Id. At that time, Mr. Strickland “was in se[ver]e respiratory distress and was cyanotic with low blood pressure, rapid breathing, and high pulse, ” which Hale and Johnson recognized “as a life-threatening medical emergency.” Id. at 7-8. Rather than calling for emergency help, however, Hale called Dr. Harrison, who authorized Hale to send Mr. Strickland to the hospital. Id. at 8. Hale then “merely instructed sheriff personnel to arrange for [Mr. Strickland] to be driven to the hospital, ” and he did not tell them that Mr. Strickland's condition was an emergency, which delayed medical treatment by fifteen to thirty minutes. Id. In addition, Hale allegedly did not “provide sheriff personnel with necessary information regarding [Mr. Strickland's] condition, ” resulting in further delays in treatment at the hospital. Id. Tragically, Mr. Strickland died that morning at the hospital. Id.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Hale, Dr. Harrison, and HMC have moved to dismiss, arguing that Ms. Strickland fails to plead a plausible deliberate indifference against them or a plausible medical malpractice claim against Dr. Harrison, and that the Third Amended Complaint is an impermissible shotgun pleading. Docs. 34 and 47.[2] The court addresses these contentions in turn.

         A. Whether Ms. Strickland Pleads a Plausible Deliberate Indifference Claims Against the Moving Defendants

         Ms. Strickland asserts § 1983 claims against Hale, Dr. Harrison, and HMC for deliberate indifference to her son's medical needs. Doc. 29 at 9. “Deliberate indifference to a prisoner's serious medical needs is a violation of the Eighth Amendment.” Goebert v. Lee Cnty., 510 F.3d 1312, 1326 (11th Cir. 2007) (citing Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104 (1976)). But, “[m]edical malpractice does not become a constitutional violation merely because the victim is a prisoner.” Estelle, 429 U.S. at 106. Accordingly, allegations of negligence in diagnosing or treating a prisoner's medical condition are not sufficient to state a claim for deliberate indifference. Id. Rather, to properly state a claim, a plaintiff must allege facts showing (1) “an objectively serious medical need” and (2) that the defendant “acted with ...


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