Ninth Circuit Reinstates Lawsuit over 2005 Suicide in California Jail
In 2005, 29-year-old Robert Clouthier hanged himself with a bed sheet while in custody at a Contra Costa County, Calif. jail, where he’d been booked on battery and vandalism charges arising out of a violent outburst against his father. Last week, the Ninth Circuit issued its ruling in a lawsuit filed by Clouthier’s parents against Contra Costa County and against three jail officials, who, the Clouthiers allege, failed to prevent their son’s suicide, despite knowing about his grave mental health problems, in violation of his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights. The court reinstated the Clouthiers’ suit as to one of the defendants — the mental health specialist who took Clouthier off suicide watch — partially overturning the district court’s grant of summary judgment.
The day that Clouthier arrived at the jail, as part of a routine intake mental health screening, he
told [county mental health specialist Sharlene] Hanaway that he was suicidal, and that he wanted to be “unconscious for the rest of his life.” Hanaway described Clouthier as “despondent, hopeless, suicidal” and “one of the most suicidal inmates she had ever seen.” Hanaway’s notes state that Clouthier had made numerous past suicide attempts, including one incident two months earlier that required hospitalization after he cut his wrists. [Her] notes reflect that Clouthier had taken medication for several years, but that he had ceased doing so two and a half years ago.
(Clouthier v. County of Contra Costa, No. 07-16703, 9th Cir., Jan. 14, 2010, p. 1123)
In light of this information, Hanaway had Clouthier placed in a special “safety cell” and outfitted in a “suicide smock” (a garment designed so that it cannot be used as a noose); placed him on observation at 15-minute intervals; and informed both the mental health staff and the deputies on duty that he was “truly suicidal” and “the real deal.” However, over the next four days, over the course of a series of shift changes among both the mental health staff and the deputies, Clouthier was given regular jail clothes and bedding, taken off 15-minute observation, and eventually, moved out into the general population — though still in a section of the jail designated for unstable inmates where he’d be checked on every 30 minutes (facts summarized from pp. 1122-28).
The Ninth Circuit’s ruling allows the suit to proceed against Margaret Blush, the mental health specialist who recommended that Clouthier be given regular clothes and bedding and taken off 15-minute observation, as to whom the panel reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment, and denied qualified immunity. However, the panel upheld the district court’s grant of summary judgment for the county and for the two deputies named in the suit (one of whom failed to notify the mental health staff when Clouthier refused to come out of his cell for meals or free time, and the other of whom was the last to check on Clouthier).
The opinion also confirms that “deliberate indifference” remains the standard in the Ninth Circuit for evaluating Fourteenth Amendment claims related to medical treatment for pretrial detainees: that is, jail officials are liable for harm to a detainee only if they were deliberately indifferent to a known safety or health risk. The court rejected the Clouthiers’ argument that pretrial detainees should instead be entitled to the higher level of protection — a constitutional right to mental health care that meets accepted professional standards — that is afforded mentally ill patients who’ve been civilly committed (see pp. 1130-34).