Morrison v. Beltrami Cnty.

Full title: ALDENE MORRISON, as Trustee for Heirs and Next-of-Kin of Anthony May, Jr., deceased, Plaintiff, v. BELTRAMI COUNTY; SHERIFF PHIL HODAPP.

Court: UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT DISTRICT OF MINNESOTA

Date published: Jun 2, 2021

Facts

Anthony May, Jr. was arrested in Beltrami County Jail on charges of felony fleeing a peace officer in a motor vehicle, gross misdemeanor driving while impaired, and misdemeanor driving after revocation. May denied having any medical issues during his medical screening and health assessment, other than treatment for back pain in 2015 and sinus surgery two years prior to the arrest.

On August 7, 2016, May slipped and fell in a cell and hit his chest on the toilet. He was transported to a Bemidji hospital, where an X-ray showed no cracked or misaligned ribs but was told that he could have small rib fractures. May was discharged with instructions to take over-the-counter pain relievers as needed and to follow up in one week if his symptoms worsened.

Well-being checks were logged throughout the night on August 10 and into the early morning on August 11, and officers observed May multiple times. Officers observed him walking around his cell, changing sleeping and arm positions, and lying on his back during the last check at 5:30 a.m. on August 11.

The jail log shows that CO Olson logged the welfare checks, but officer testimony clarifies that COs Olson and Garza alternated doing the checks. In the morning of August 11, after shift change, CO Richards performed a well-being check at 5:52 a.m., but does not recall what he observed of May at that time.

Jail surveillance video shows that an inmate entered May’s cell at 6:39 a.m., then returned to his table for breakfast, and another inmate looked into the cell at 6:41 a.m. At 6:43 a.m., an inmate entered May’s cell, exited, and talked to another inmate before pressing the jail intercom button around 6:46 a.m.

CO Richards discovered a blue-faced inmate in the C Block of Beltrami County Jail, where he was conducting welfare checks. He found May lying in bed, cold, and without a pulse. The medical tech and Richards decided not to start CPR due to May’s coldness. The fire department arrived but couldn’t find a response, so no lifesaving measures were taken. An autopsy revealed May suffered a sudden cardiac death due to an undetected heart defect. The death was classified as “natural due to possible sudden cardiac arrest.” An expert witness reviewed the incident report, medical records, and autopsy, agreeing that May died due to sudden cardiac arrest but opining that delayed recognition of his collapse and resuscitation efforts contributed to his death.

Issue

(1) whether the facts shown, when viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, support a finding that an officer’s conduct violated a constitutional right; and (2) whether that constitutional right was established at the time of the incident such that a reasonable officer would have known their actions were unlawful.

Decision

First, inmates have constitutional rights to, at minimum, adequate medical care and protection from general harms such as assault. See Hott260 F.3d at 906. The Beltrami County Jail well-being check policy requires that checks be sufficient to determine whether an inmate is experiencing stress or trauma, which the record shows means at least checking for medical duress and fighting among inmates. Therefore, the well-being check policy is aimed at preventing the same harms protected by an inmate’s constitutional rights. By extension, failing to train officers to comply with the well-being check policy jeopardizes an inmate’s rights.

Second, because well-being checks are required by jail policy and state rule and protect constitutional rights, yet Beltrami County implemented no formal training on how to conduct them but merely followed a shadowing system, a reasonable jury could conclude that the need for additional training was obvious. Sheriff Hodapp’s testimony that he did not know the precise contours of the well-being check training bolsters an inference of deliberate indifference. Thus, there remains a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the County was deliberately indifferent to inmates’, including May’s, rights.

Lastly, there also remains a question of fact as to the causal link between any inadequacy in training and May’s death. Morrison contends that if the COs had been more thorough in their well-being checks they may have recognized signs of medical distress in May and been able to intervene in a timely fashion, thereby increasing the chances that he would have survived his cardiac arrest.

In sum, because the well-being checks policy protects constitutional rights and the record supports a reasonable inference that Beltrami County failed to train its officers to conduct adequate checks, the Court will deny the Defendants’ Motion as to Count V for failure to train.

Based on the foregoing, and all the files, records, and proceedings herein, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment [Docket No. 20] is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part as follows:

1. The Motion is GRANTED concerning all claims against Defendants Andrew Richards, Saul Garza, Adam Olson, and Katherine O’Bryan;

2. The Motion is GRANTED concerning Count IV against Beltrami County;

3. The Motion is DENIED concerning Count V against Beltrami County and Sheriff Hodapp in his official capacity; and

4. Counts I, II, III, and IV are DISMISSED with prejudice.

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