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Landry v. Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Houston Division

December 8, 2017

JANA K. LANDRY, Individually, and as next of kin and personal representative of Matthew Conard Nelson Deceased, Plaintiff,


          Lee H. Rosenthal Chief United States District Judge

         This is a prison suicide case. This motion to dismiss requires the court to decide whether the plaintiff, Jana Landry, the mother of the deceased, Matthew Conard Nelson, has stated claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law against the doctors who treated her son. The doctors, Dr. Pilar Laborde-Lahoz, M.D. and Sunil Athavale, M.D., have jointly moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). A key issue as to the § 1983 claim is qualified immunity. After careful review of the parties' briefs, responses, and replies, and the applicable law, the court grants the defendants' motion to dismiss, without leave to amend because amendment would be futile. The reasons are explained below.

         I. Background

         The allegations and background are taken from the Second Amended Complaint. (Docket Entry No. 41). In November 2014, Matthew Nelson, then 36 years old and addicted to methamphetamine, was convicted for possessing methamphetamine and sentenced to 63 years in prison. After his trial, Nelson was held at the Harris County Jail, awaiting his assignment and transfer to a Texas state prison. During inmate processing, Nelson tried to commit suicide by climbing up on a counter and jumping backwards. Nelson landed on his back, breaking one of his vertebrae. Officers took him to the hospital for treatment and returned him to the Harris County Jail. The next day, officers placed Nelson on suicide watch, but removed him from the watch less than two weeks later.

         Dr. Athavale examined Nelson in the jail and prescribed fluoxetine, an antidepressant known to cause side effects that can include “inducing self-injury, causing suicidal thoughts, and . . . induc[ing] suicidal attempts.” (Docket Entry No. 41 at 8). Despite the potential side effects and Nelson's suicide attempt, Dr. Athavale did not recommend reimposing suicide watch. During this period, Nelson began attending group psychotherapy, but he stopped because his back pain “made sitting in the group insufferable.” (Docket Entry No. 41 at 8). Twice during the next three months, Nelson told his mother that he wanted to kill himself. Landry alleges that she reported these threats to the jail.

         Nelson attempted suicide a second time by cutting his wrist with a razor. Harris County Jail physicians treated Nelson in the infirmary after the attempt and sent him back to his cell, but there is no indication of Dr. Athavale's involvement. Harris County Jail nurse Rosemary Ojih assessed Nelson's mental health and reported that his response to incarceration was “normal, ” while noting that he had twice attempted suicide. (Docket Entry No. 41 at 9). The jail medical staff did not put Nelson back on suicide watch.

         In March 2015, Nelson attempted suicide for the third time since arriving at the jail by cutting his neck with a razor. Dr. Laborde-Lahoz examined Nelson and told him that she thought his suicide attempt was a “rehearsal.” (Docket Entry No. 41 at 10). Dr. Laborde-Lahoz prescribed mirtazapine, an antidepressant with side effects that can include “depression, psychotic depression, suicidal ideations, and suicidal behavior.” (Docket Entry No. 41 at 10-11). About a week later, Dr. Laborde-Lahoz also prescribed lurasidone, a medication for bipolar disorder, which has side effects that can include suicidal ideations. After both appointments, Dr. Laborde-Lahoz approved Nelson to return to the general jail population and did not recommend suicide watch.

         About a week later, Nelson made a fourth suicide attempt by running head-first into a cinderblock wall. Harris County Jail physicians treated Nelson in the infirmary and again sent him back to his cell. Once again, there is no indication that the treating physicians at the jail involved Dr. Laborde-Lahoz or Dr. Athavale or that they put Nelson on suicide watch.

         The following day, April 1, 2015, officers transferred Nelson to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Gurney Unit, where he was placed in an “administration separation cell.” That same day, a TDCJ employee found Nelson in his prison cell, dead from asphyxiation. He had hanged himself with a bed sheet tied to a light fixture.

         In February 2017, Landry filed suit against twelve defendants, alleging six causes of action. Drs. Athavale and Laborde-Lahoz jointly moved to dismiss Landry's complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim against them. Landry's claims against the doctors are for: (1) violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments under § 1983; (2) medical malpractice; (3) wrongful death; and (4) a survival action.

         II. The Legal Standard for Dismissal

         Rule 12(b)(6) allows dismissal if a plaintiff fails “to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Rule 12(b)(6) must be read in conjunction with Rule 8(a), which requires “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a) (2). A complaint must contain “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). Rule 8 “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 Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). “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.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “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. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

         To withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a “complaint must allege ‘more than labels and conclusions, '” and “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Norris v. Hearst Trust, 500 F.3d 454, 464 (5th Cir. 2007) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). “Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders ‘naked assertion[s]' devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (alteration in original) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557). “[A] complaint does not need detailed factual allegations, but must provide the plaintiff's grounds for entitlement to relief-including factual allegations that when assumed to be true ‘raise a right to relief above the speculative level.'” Cuvillier v. Taylor, 503 F.3d 397, 401 (5th Cir. 2007) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). “Conversely, when the allegations in a complaint, however true, could not raise a claim of entitlement to relief, this basic deficiency should be exposed at the point of minimum expenditure of time and money by the parties and the court.” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 558) (internal quotation marks and alteration omitted).

         When a plaintiff's complaint fails to state a claim, the court should generally give the plaintiff a chance to amend the complaint under Rule 15(a) before dismissing the action with prejudice, unless it is clear that to do so would be futile. See Carroll v. Fort James Corp., 470 F.3d 1171, 1175 (5th Cir. 2006) (Rule 15(a) “evinces a bias in favor of granting leave to amend”); GreatPlains Trust Co. v. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co., 313 F.3d 305, 329 (5th Cir. 2002) (“[D]istrict courts often afford plaintiffs at least one opportunity to cure pleading deficiencies before dismissing a case, unless it is clear that the defects are incurable or the plaintiffs advise the court that they are unwilling or unable to amend in a manner that will avoid dismissal.”). A court in its discretion may deny a motion to amend for futility if the amended complaint would fail to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Villarreal v. Wells Fargo Bank, ...

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