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Lewis v. Texas Department of Criminal Justice

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

May 13, 2019

FREDRICK BERNARD LEWIS, et al., Plaintiffs,


          Lee H Rosenthal Chief United States District Judge

         In March 2019, the plaintiffs, Fredrick Bernard Lewis and Janice Marie Close, filed the third amended complaint and moved for leave to assert claims against two new defendants, the University of Texas Medical Branch, commonly called UTMB, and a licensed mental-health counselor, Sheri Nichols-Woodward. (Docket Entry Nos. 97, 98). Owen Murray, Virginia Lovell, and Michael Utley opposed the motion and argued that the court should deny leave because the applicable limitations periods bars the claims. (Docket Entry Nos. 104, 105).

         After a careful review of the proposed amended complaint, the motion and response, the record, the applicable law, and the arguments presented at the hearing, the plaintiffs' motion for leave to add new parties is granted. The reasons are explained in detail below.

         I. Background

         The relevant facts are laid out in this court's December 2018 Memorandum Opinion and Order. In July 2016, Lewis killed himself while in custody at the Jim Ferguson Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. (Docket Entry No. 75 at 16). In February 2018, his parents, Fredrick Bernard Lewis and Janice Marie Close, sued the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, UTMB, and 27 medical personnel, asserting Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment claims based on the denial of medical treatment. (Docket Entry No. 12). In May 2018, the plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed their claims against UTMB, without prejudice. (Docket Entry No. 15).

         In December 2018, the court granted the defendants' motions to dismiss the claims against medical staff Cheryl A. Lang, Joshua McDonald, Terri B. Daigle, Michael W. Utley, Chuks Mazi, Megan L. Harvison, Virginia Lovell, Tamekka D. Henry, Allison Lechler, Jane M. Muchoki, Stephanie Terry, Goldie R. Jones, and Rena N. Simmons, and the claims against other nurses and physician assistants, with leave to conduct limited discovery and to amend their complaint before March 20, 2019. (Docket Entry Nos. 84, 95). The court denied Murray's and Linthicum's motions to dismiss the plaintiffs' Eighth Amendment claims. (Id.).

         In March 2019, the plaintiffs filed a third amended complaint and moved for leave to assert claims against UTMB and Sheri Nichols-Woodward under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act. (Docket Entry Nos. 97, 98). The defendants argued that the statute of limitations barred the claims. (Docket Entry Nos. 104, 105). The plaintiffs agree that the limitations period has expired, but they argue that the circumstances provide the court with a basis to equitably toll the limitations period. (Docket Entry No. 104 at 8).

         II. Analysis

         The plaintiffs must show good cause to amend the complaint to assert claims against new parties. The indicated in the initial pretrial conference that no new parties were needed. United States ex rel. Bias v. Tangipahoa Par. Sch. Bd., 816 F.3d 315, 328 (5th Cir. 2016). The court may consider: “(1) the explanation for the failure to timely move for leave to amend; (2) the importance of the amendment; (3) potential prejudice in allowing the amendment; and (4) the availability of a continuance to cure such prejudice.” Id. at 328 (quoting S&W Enters., LLC v. S. Tr. Bank of Ala., N.A., 315 F.3d 533, 535 (5th Cir. 2003)); see also Plains Cotton Coop. Ass'n v. Gray, 672 Fed.Appx. 372, 377 (5th Cir. 2016).

         Even if the plaintiffs have shown good cause, the court must deny leave to amend if the proposed claims against the new parties could not succeed based on the well-pleaded complaint allegations, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Legate v. Livingston, 822 F.3d 207, 211 (5th Cir. 2016); Thomas v. Chevron U.S.A., Inc., 832 F.3d 586, 590 (5th Cir. 2016); City of Clinton v. Pilgrim's Pride Corp., 632 F.3d 148, 152-53 (5th Cir. 2010); Rio Grande Royalty Co. v. Energy Transfer Partners, 620 F.3d 465, 468 (5th Cir. 2010). Time-barred claims cannot succeed. Washington v. City of Gulfport, 351 Fed.Appx. 916, 918 (5th Cir. 2009); Jones v. Alcoa, Inc., 339 F.3d 359, 366 (5th Cir. 2003).

         Because the limitations period ran from when Lewis died in July 2016, the newly asserted claims are barred unless the court finds a basis to equitably toll the limitations period, as the plaintiffs concede. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 16.003(a); Piotrowski v. City of Hous., 237 F.3d 567, 576 (5th Cir. 2001); Frame v. City of Arlington, 616 F.3d 476, 488-89 (5th Cir. 2011); Hickey v. Irving Indep. Sch. Dist., 976 F.2d 980, 982-83 (5th Cir. 1992); see also Heilman v. City of Beaumont, 638 Fed.Appx. 363, 366 (5th Cir. 2016). The plaintiffs have “the burden to provide justification for equitable tolling.” Granger v. Aaron's, Inc., 636 F.3d 708, 712 (5th Cir. 2011).

         A court may toll a limitations period if its application would be “inequitable” under the circumstances. Balle v. Nueces Cty., 690 Fed.Appx. 847, 851 (5th Cir. 2017) (quoting Lambert v. United States, 44 F.3d 296, 298 (5th Cir. 1995)). Both Texas and federal courts “sparingly” apply equitable tolling. Myers v. Nash, 464 Fed.Appx. 348, 349 (5th Cir. 2012). “Traditional equitable principles preclude a court from invoking equitable tolling . . . when the party seeking relief has an adequate legal or statutory remedy to avoid the consequences of the statute of limitations.” Id. at 299.

         The plaintiffs contend that they have good cause for their delay and a basis for equitable tolling because they filed an Open Records Request for Lewis's mental-health records in 2016. They did not receive all the records that they sought, including records showing Lewis's 45 meetings with Nichols-Woodward, until after the limitations period expired. The defendants argue that the plaintiffs were not diligent in seeking the records in 2016 because their Open Records Request did not include psychotherapy notes or specify which documents they sought.

         A. ...

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