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Price v. Valdez

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division

July 27, 2017

SONYA PRICE, individually, and as Representative of the Estate of David Price, Plaintiffs,
LUPE VALDEZ, in her official and individual capacities,, Defendants.



         Plaintiff Sonya Price (“Sonya”) brings this lawsuit arising from the death of her husband David Price (“David”) while in the custody of the Dallas County Sheriff's Department. She sues defendant Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez (“Sheriff Valdez”) in her individual and official capacities, ten Deputy Doe defendants, ten Nurse Doe defendants, and ten Doctor Doe defendants. Sheriff Valdez moves to dismiss Sonya's lawsuit under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). For the reasons that follow, the court grants the motion in part and denies it in part, orders Sonya to file a Rule 7(a) reply to the defense of qualified immunity, and permits Sonya to replead.


         On September 14, 2014 David and Sonya had a domestic altercation.[1] Shortly after leaving the scene of the altercation, David, who was 47 years old, was attacked and robbed. He suffered head injuries, was hospitalized, and was unconscious from the time of his hospitalization until October 9. After David regained consciousness, he was released from the hospital and prescribed medication to prevent seizures, a common side effect of brain injuries.

         On November 17 David was arrested and charged with domestic violence in relation to the September 14 altercation. He was held in the Lew Sterrett Justice Center (the “Dallas County Jail”) from November 17 until November 19. David was released on a recognizance bond, based in part on his medical condition, and he was escorted out of the building when released, which was unusual. Sonya alleges that, based on these facts, the Sheriff's Department knew of David's medical condition from his prior head injury. She alleges that the Sheriff's Department knew that David had suffered a massive brain injury and been prescribed anti-seizure medication.

         After he was released from jail on November 19, David returned home until November 21, when he was hospitalized for bleeding of his brain. He underwent brain surgery to relieve pressure on his brain and stop the internal bleeding. Approximately one third of his skull was removed from the left side of his head, and could not be replaced. As a result, David had a deep dent on the side of his head that was obvious even to a casual observer. David was fitted for a rigid plastic helmet to cover his head where his skull had been removed. The helmet was intended to take the place of his partially missing skull by protecting his brain from trauma or injury, and the presence of the helmet indicated a medical condition.

         On December 16 David returned home from the hospital. At approximately 3:00 a.m. on December 17, he experienced a psychotic episode that involved knocking things around randomly in his kitchen. Sonya awoke and found David uncommunicative and disoriented. Sonya's son feared that his mother would be harmed by David's erratic behavior, and called 911. When the police arrived, David had calmed down and did not appear aggressive or emotional. The police nevertheless arrested David for domestic violence and took him to the Dallas County Jail. David was wearing his medically prescribed helmet when he left his house.

         Dallas County Sheriff's deputies booked David into the Jail early on December 17. In her first amended complaint, Sonya refers to these deputies as the Deputy Does, to non-physician medical personnel at the Jail as the Nurse Does, and to physicians at the Jail as the Doctor Does. The Deputy Does removed David's medical helmet and placed him in a holding cell with bunk beds and a concrete floor, which was already occupied by one other detainee. None of the defendants obtained information about David's medical condition, including his need for medication. David was not provided with his prescribed medication at the Jail.

         Sonya alleges that either qualified medical personnel were consulted and failed to provide needed care to David, or that qualified medical personnel were never consulted. Sonya began attempting to contact someone at the Jail early on December 17 to inquire about David and inform Jail personnel of his medical condition, but she was unsuccessful. Sheriff's Department records show that David was “bottom bunk restricted, ” but this note does not appear to have been enforced.

         On December 18, at approximately 10:00 a.m., David fell from the top bunk in the holding cell. He injured his head and broke his scapula in the fall. He was taken to the hospital unconscious. Sonya was not informed of David's condition until December 29, when her family's church bishop told her that David was in the hospital and in bad condition. David had been in a medically induced coma for several days in the doctors' attempt to control his brain bleeding and strokes.

         David remained in the hospital for several months. He was partially paralyzed and received physical therapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy. He suffered relapses from his brain injuries, however, and on March 3, 2015 he went into a coma and was placed on a respirator. David died on March 6.

         Sonya alleges that the Sheriff's Department employed no or insufficient qualified medical personnel to evaluate the medical needs of incoming detainees. She also asserts that the Sheriff's Department adheres to a policy of inadequately monitoring detainees with special needs, as evidenced by the fact that David's fall was reported by another detainee because it was not directly observed by any Jail personnel. Sonya alleges that no Sheriff's Department personnel were reprimanded or punished for conduct in relation to David's death.

         Sonya brings this lawsuit against Sheriff Valdez, in her official and individual capacities, the Deputy Does, Nurse Does, and Doctor Does. Sonya alleges claims for violations of David's Fourteenth Amendment rights, under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985(3); violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.; violations of the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act, Tex. Human Resources Code Ann. Ch. 121 (West 2013); negligence and gross negligence against the Deputy Does and Nurse Does; malpractice against the Doctor Does; and wrongful death. Sheriff Valdez moves to dismiss the claims against her under Rule 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). Sonya opposes the motion.[2]


         The court begins by setting out the standards that apply to Sheriff Valdez's requests for relief under Rule 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6).

         “Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, and absent jurisdiction conferred by statute, lack the power to adjudicate claims.” Stockman v. Fed. Election Comm'n, 138 F.3d 144, 151 (5th Cir. 1998). A Rule 12(b)(1) motion can mount either a facial or factual challenge. See, e.g., Hunter v. Branch Banking & Tr. Co., 2013 WL 607151, at *2 (N.D. Tex. Feb. 19, 2013) (Fitzwater, C.J.) (citing Paterson v. Weinberger, 644 F.2d 521, 523 (5th Cir. May 1981)). When a party makes a Rule 12(b)(1) motion without including evidence, the challenge to subject matter jurisdiction is facial. Id. The court assesses a facial challenge as it does a Rule 12(b)(6) motion in that it “looks only at the sufficiency of the allegations in the pleading and assumes them to be true. If the allegations are sufficient to allege jurisdiction, the court must deny the motion.” Id. (citation omitted) (citing Paterson, 644 F.2d at 523). “The burden of proof for a Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss is on the party asserting jurisdiction. Accordingly, the plaintiff constantly bears the burden of proof that jurisdiction does in fact exist.” Ramming v. United States, 281 F.3d 158, 161 (5th Cir. 2001) (per curiam) (citations omitted).

         In deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court evaluates the sufficiency of Sonya's first amended complaint “by accepting all well-pleaded facts as true, viewing them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Bramlett v. Med. Protective Co. of Fort Wayne, Ind., 855 F.Supp.2d 615, 618 (N.D. Tex. 2012) (Fitzwater, C.J.) (quoting In re Katrina Canal Breaches Litig., 495 F.3d 191, 205 (5th Cir. 2007)) (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted). To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), Sonya must plead “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). “The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement, ' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556); see also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (“Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level[.]”). “[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not ‘shown'-‘that the pleader is entitled to relief.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (quoting Rule 8(a)(2)) (brackets omitted). “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id. at 678. Furthermore, under Rule 8(a)(2), a pleading must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Although “the pleading standard Rule 8 announces does not require ‘detailed factual allegations, '” it demands more than “‘labels and conclusions.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). “[A] formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).


         The court begins with Sheriff Valdez's contention that, in her individual capacity, she is entitled to qualified immunity from Sonya's claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and § 1985(3).

         “[G]overnment officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). Qualified immunity applies to state officials sued for constitutional violations under § 1983. See Id. at 818 n.30 (citing Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478, 504 (1978)); Palmer v. Johnson, 193 F.3d 346, 351 (5th Cir. 1999). It also applies to claims brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1985. See Kinney v. Weaver, 367 F.3d 337, 351-55 (5th Cir. 2004) (en banc) (addressing whether defendants were entitled to qualified immunity from § 1985 claim); Southard v. Tex. Bd. of Criminal Justice, 114 F.3d 539, 556 (5th Cir. 1997) (holding that defendant had qualified immunity as to claims under §§ 1983 and 1985). “The Supreme Court has characterized the doctrine as protecting ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.'” Cozzo v. Tangipahoa Parish Council-President Gov't, 279 F.3d 273, 284 (5th Cir. 2002) (quoting Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986)).

         “To decide whether defendants are entitled to qualified immunity, the court must first answer the threshold question whether, taken in the light most favorable to plaintiff[] as the part[y] asserting the injuries, the facts [she has] alleged show that defendant['s] conduct violated a constitutional right.” Ellis v. Crawford, 2005 WL 525406, at *3 (N.D. Tex. Mar. 3, 2005) (Fitzwater, J.) (citing Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001) (“A court required to rule upon the qualified immunity issue must consider, then, this threshold question: Taken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, do the facts alleged show the officer's conduct violated a constitutional right? This must be the initial inquiry.”)).[3] “If no constitutional right would have been violated were the allegations established, there is no necessity for further inquiries concerning qualified immunity.” Saucier, 533 U.S. at 201. “[I]f a violation could be made out on a favorable view of the parties' submissions, the next, sequential step is to ask whether the right was clearly established.” Id. “Even if the government official's conduct violates a clearly established right, the official is nonetheless entitled to qualified immunity if his conduct was objectively reasonable.” Wallace v. Cnty. of Comal, 400 F.3d 284, 289 (5th Cir. 2005). “The objective reasonableness of allegedly illegal conduct is assessed in light of the legal rules clearly established at the time it was taken.” Salas v. Carpenter, 980 F.2d 299, 310 (5th Cir. 1992) (citing Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 639 (1987)). “‘The defendant's acts are held to be objectively reasonable unless all reasonable officials in the defendant's circumstances would have then known that the defendant's conduct violated the plaintiff's asserted constitutional or federal statutory right.” Cozzo, 279 F.3d at 284 (quoting Thompson v. Upshur Cnty., 245 F.3d 447, 457 (5th Cir. 2001)).

         “[W]hen a plaintiff sues a public official under § 1983, the district court must insist on heightened pleading by the plaintiff.” Morin v. Caire, 77 F.3d 116, 121 (5th Cir. 1996) (citing Schultea v. Wood, 47 F.3d 1427, 1433 (5th Cir. 1995) (en banc)). Although a plaintiff may comply with ordinary pleading standards in her initial complaint, and need not anticipate a qualified immunity defense, “[w]hen a public official pleads the affirmative defense of qualified immunity in his answer, the district court may, on the official's motion or on its own, require the plaintiff to reply to that defense in detail” pursuant to Rule 7(a). Schultea, 47 F.3d at 1433. “[T]he reply must be tailored to the assertion of qualified immunity and fairly engage its allegations.” Id. “Heightened pleading requires allegations of fact focusing specifically on the conduct of the individual who caused the plaintiffs' injury.” Reyes v. Sazan, 168 F.3d 158, 161 (5th Cir. 1999). The case should not be allowed to proceed unless the plaintiff can assert specific facts that, if true, would overcome the defense. See Morin, 77 F.3d at 120 (“Public officials are entitled to qualified immunity from suit under § 1983 unless it is shown by specific allegations that the officials violated clearly established law.”); Schultea, 47 F.3d at 1434 (“The district court need not allow any discovery unless it finds that plaintiff has supported his claim with sufficient precision and factual specificity[.]”). The “district court's discretion not to [require a Rule 7(a) reply] is narrow indeed when greater detail might assist.” Schultea, 47 F.3d at 1434; see also Reyes, 168 F.3d at 161 (“Faced with sparse details of claimed wrongdoing by officials, trial courts ought routinely require plaintiffs to file a reply under [Rule] 7(a) to qualified immunity defenses.”).


         Because the first issue in the qualified immunity inquiry is whether a constitutional right has been violated, the court now considers whether Sonya has stated a claim on which relief can be granted under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.


         “Section 1983 creates a private right of action for redressing the violation of federal law by those acting under color of state law.” Colson v. Grohman, 174 F.3d 498, 504 n.2 (5th Cir. 1999) (citing Migra v. Warren City Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 465 U.S. 75, 82 (1984)). “Rather than creating substantive rights, § 1983 simply provides a remedy for the rights that it designates. Thus, an underlying constitutional or statutory violation is a predicate to liability under § 1983.” Harrington v. Harris, 118 F.3d 359, 365 (5th Cir. 1997) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Johnston v. Harris Cnty. Flood Control Dist., 869 F.2d 1565, 1573 (5th Cir. 1989)). Sonya bases her § 1983 claim on allegations that the unconstitutional conduct of Dallas County and its officers deprived David of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.

         Although the state has an important interest in the incarceration of pretrial detainees and convicted state prisoners,

[t]he State's exercise of its power to hold detainees and prisoners . . . brings with it a responsibility under the U.S. Constitution to tend to the essentials of their well-being: “[W]hen the State by affirmative exercise of its powers so restrains an individual's liberty that it renders him unable to care for himself, and at the same time fails to provide for his basic human needs . . . it transgresses the substantive limits on state action set by the Eighth Amendment and the Due Process Clause.”

Hare v. City of Corinth, Miss., 74 F.3d 633, 638-39 (5th Cir. 1996) (en banc) (quoting DeShaney v. Winnebago Cnty. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 489 U.S. 189, 200 (1989)). Convicted prisoners derive their right to have these basic needs met from the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Id. Pretrial detainees, on the other hand, having not been adjudged guilty of any crime and therefore not punishable at all, derive their protections from the due process guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment. Id.; Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 535-36 (1979). These protections are said to be “at least as great as . . . [those] available to a convicted prisoner.” Hare, 74 F.3d at 639 (internal quotation marks omitted). Therefore, because David was a pretrial detainee, the operative question is whether Sonya has plausibly pleaded that he suffered a violation of his Fourteenth Amendment rights.

         The applicable standard for making this determination depends on whether the constitutional challenge is based on a “condition of confinement” or an “episodic act or omission.” Flores v. Cnty. of Hardeman, Tex., 124 F.3d 736, 738 (5th Cir. 1997) (citing Hare, 74 F.3d at 644). Where the claim is based on a condition of confinement, “the constitutional challenge is to the ‘general conditions, practices, rules, or restrictions of pretrial confinement.'” Palo ex rel. Estate of Palo v. Dallas Cnty., 2007 WL 2140590, at *2 (N.D. Tex. July 26, 2007) (Fitzwater, J.) (“Palo II”) (quoting Hare, 74 F.3d at 644). By contrast, where the claim is based on an episodic act or omission, “the complained-of harm is a particular act or omission of one or more officials, and the case focuses on ‘whether [the] official breached his constitutional duty to tend to the basic human needs of persons in his charge.'” Id. (quoting Hare, 74 F.3d at 645). Sonya raises both types of challenges, and the court addresses each in turn.


         The court first addresses whether Sonya has stated a claim based on the ...

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