Seventh Circuit reverses part of ruling in suit over suicide attempt at downstate jail

By Bethany Krajelis | Mar 13, 2014

A now-brain dead man who tried to kill himself while in the Madison County’ Jail has convinced a federal appeals panel to revive his lawsuit.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday reversed part of U.S. District Judge David Herndon’s decision to grant summary judgment to the defendants in lawsuit accusing the county, its jail personnel and others of being indifferent to inmate Reginald Pittman’s risk of suicide.

The panel only reversed Herndon’s ruling in regards to two defendants — Matt Werner and Randy Eaton– and affirmed the part of his decision granting summary judgment to the other defendants, including Madison County, the sheriff, the captain in charge of the jail, a nurse and a doctor.

Finding that Pittman “raised a genuine issue of triable fact about whether” Werner and Eaton, both of whom worked in the jail around the time of his 2007 suicide attempt, “exhibited a deliberate indifference toward him,”  the panel reversed their grant of summary judgment and remanded the matter for further proceedings.

Seventh Circuit Judges Kenneth Ripple, Richard Cudahy and David Hamilton made up the panel in this case, which was argued this past fall.

Writing on behalf of the federal appeals panel, Ripple explained the panel had to reverse part of Herndon’s ruling and remand because the issues Pittman’s suit raised “are questions that must be resolved by the trier of fact. They cannot be determined on summary judgment.”

The panel’s 32-page opinion comes in the lawsuit Pittman brought by and through Robin M. Hamilton, his guardian and next friend, shortly after his Dec. 19, 2007 suicide attempt.

Pittman, according to the ruling, hung himself with a blanket from the bars of his cell in Madison County’s jail, a suicide attempt that was halted by an officer, but left him brain-damaged and disabled.

At the time of his August 2007 intake at the jail, the opinion states Pittman told jail personnel  that he “had no major medical problems, no thoughts about killing or injuring himself, no previous suicide attempts, no signs of depression and no psychiatric history.”

By October, however, Pittman told a jail officer he was suicidal. He was moved to a holding cell, put on suicide watch and referred to a social worker for an evaluation.

Pittman told medical staff the next day he didn’t have suicidal thoughts, but was unhappy with the unit he was housed in. He was then referred to mental health services, which was provided through a contract the jail had with Chestnut Health Systems (CRISIS).

A specialist with CRISIS met with Pittman on Oct. 22, 2007. She put in her notes that  Pittman said he told staff he was suicidal in hopes they would move him out of his housing unit.

She saw him again on Oct. 30, at which time the opinion notes he was upset over a cheating girlfriend and wanted to be put in a segregated housing unit because he couldn’t stop crying.

The next day, Pittman saw a nurse, who had a doctor prescribe a pair of anti-depressants. He was then put in the “drunk tank” for observation and briefly placed in a special housing unit before being moved back to general population.

The panel’s opinion goes on to detail two medical care requests Pittman made in November and states he was moved from general population to a drunk tank on Dec. 1 before being moved to a segregated housing unit on Dec. 4.

An inmate  in that segregated housing unit testified that Pittman was depressed and that both Werner and Eaton ignored his requests to meet with CRISIS in the days leading up to his Dec. 19 suicide attempt.

The inmate, according to the opinion, reported that Pittman asked Werner to let him meet with CRISIS on Dec. 14 and asked Eaton the same thing on Dec. 18. Neither Werner nor Eaton set up the meetings or was working when Pittman attempted suicide.

In his suit, Pittman alleged his constitutional rights were violated by the defendants’ indifference to his suicide risk and claimed they failed to train jail personnel, provide adequate medical care and properly house inmates at risk for suicide.

The suit also sought injunctive relief to require Madison County, its sheriff and the captain in charge of the jail to provide treatment plans inmates receiving psychiatric services. It further alleged these defendants violated state law because they failed to implement proper suicide prevention policies.

All of the defendants filed motions for summary judgment, which Herndon granted after finding Pittman failed to show a genuine issue of material fact about whether the defendants violated his rights to receive medical care and be protected.

On appeal, however, the Seventh Circuit partially agreed with Pittman as it only reversed Herndon’s decision to grant summary judgment when it came to two of the defendants.

Ripple wrote that a plaintiff bringing a constitutional claim over a medical care denial “must meet both an objective and a subjective component” by showing the medical condition was objectively serious and that the defendants’ acts or omissions were deliberately indifferent to the plaintiffs’ serious medical needs.

While Herndon determined the record didn’t show that Werner and Eaton were aware of Pittman’s medical records or show other signs of suicide risk, Pittman argued on appeal that their failure to act on his requests for CRISIS meets could constitute a deliberate indifference and that his risks should have been apparent to them.

“In evaluating this submission, we must accept the facts in the light most favorable to Mr. Pittman,” Ripple wrote.

Based on the testimony of Pittman’s cell neighbor, Ripple wrote “the trier of fact could conclude reasonably that” Eaton and Werner were aware of Pittman’s problems in the days leading up to his suicide and knew he had psychiatric situations in the past.

As far as the doctor and nurse named in Pittman’s suit, the panel found that Herndon was right to grant them summary judgment because they relied on jail personnel to refer them inmates in need of attention.

The panel also affirmed Herndon’s grant of summary judgment to the sheriff and captain, saying the record shows that neither of them interacted with Pittman and a jury couldn’t reasonably conclude they met the subjective component required to make a deliberate indifference claim.

“We agree that summary judgment was entered properly with respect to the other defendants, except for any liability that the County or the Sheriff may incur under state law for the actions of their subordinates,” Ripple wrote, explaining the sheriff and county “ may have vicarious liability on the state law claim for the actions of” Werner and Eaton.

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