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Earle v. City of Huntington

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Huntington Division

July 11, 2017

LUMUMBA EARLE, individually and as the Personal Representative of the ESTATE of ANNIE EARLE, deceased, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF HUNTINGTON, d/b/a CITY OF HUNTINGTON POLICE DEPARTMENT, a municipal corporation, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Robert C. Chambers, Judge

         Pending before the Court is Defendants City of Huntington and Josh Nield's (collectively Defendants) Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 297). Defendants also moved to Set a Hearing on the Motion (ECF No. 309) for oral argument. The Court held a Pretrial Conference on July 5, 2017 and finds another hearing unnecessary. The Court, thus, DENIES Defendants' Motion for a Hearing (ECF No. 309). For the following reasons, the Court GRANTS in part and DENIES in part Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 297). The Court defers ruling on the Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 297) in regards to the City of Huntington's municipal liability argument to allow further briefing.

         I. Background [1]

         Plaintiff filed the instant case against these two Defendants, bringing claims of constitutional and state law violations for the actions that led to the unfortunate death of Ms. Annie Earle (Earle) on January 11, 2014.[2] See Pl.'s Third Am. Compl., ECF No. 111. According to Starlight Behavioral Health Services (Starlight), Earle had been diagnosed with “Schizophrenia, paranoia type, PTSD, and Major Depressive Order.” See ACT Discharge Summary, ECF No. 298-2. Earle was originally taken to St. Mary's Hospital on January 10, 2014 for treatment for a head laceration. See Stephanie Earle Tr., ECF No. 311-1, at 42:17-21. Earle's daughter left the hospital once Earle was stable but required further treatment. Id. at 45:8-14.

         In the early morning hours of January 11, 2014, the hospital prepared Earle for discharge, but the nursing staff could not get ahold of Earle's family to arrange transportation. See Clinical Notes Report, ECF No. 298-3, at 5. The nurses encouraged Earle to remain at the hospital until someone could transport her home safely, and the Clinical Notes specify that Earle agreed to stay through 3:00 p.m. that day. Id. at 1. Ms. Donna White, Earle's Starlight caseworker, visited Earle at the hospital around 11:30 a.m., noting that Earle's mental status was “baseline in light of her chronic mental health issues.” Statement of Events, ECF No. 311-2, at 1. Nurse Bobbi Adams filed an Application for Involuntary Custody for Mental Health Examination (mental hygiene order) for Earle at approximately 1:00 p.m. See Mental Hygiene Order, ECF No. 298-6; Clinical Notes Report, ECF No. 298-3, at 2. The application remained pending when, at approximately 4:41 p.m., Earle decided to leave the hospital on her own volition. Clinical Notes Report, ECF No. 298-3, at 2.

         Nurse Melissa Blagg called Cabell County 911 at approximately 4:53 p.m. to report that Earle had walked away against medical advice and that the hospital had been trying to get a mental hygiene order over her. See 911 Transcript, ECF No. 311-21; Clinical Notes Report, ECF No. 298-3, at 1 (marking entry at 4:55 p.m.). The Mental Health Commissioner denied the mental hygiene order for insufficient facts that Earle was likely to cause harm to herself or others; the denial was marked by voice order at 4:55 p.m.[3] See Order/Notice, ECF No. 311-22, at 1. No one called to update Cabell County 911 when the mental hygiene order was denied. In response to the hospital's call, dispatch reported to the police officers that Earle had walked away from St. Mary's. See 911 Transcript, ECF No. 311-21. After an incoming call indicated that Earle had entered a nearby O'Reilly's Auto Parts store, dispatch radioed Huntington Police Officer Andre Jackson and Defendant Officer Josh Nield (Officer Nield) to bring Earle back to St. Mary's. Id. Another officer asked for clarification on the mental hygiene order status, and the dispatcher erroneously stated that the hospital had acquired the order over Earle. Id. Officer Nield heard this, responded to the call, and drove to O'Reilly's to transport Earle back to St. Mary's. See Josh Nield Dep., ECF No. 298-7, at 21:6-9.

         Officer Nield entered O'Reilly's and saw Earle at the checkout counter. Id. at 25:5. Earle apparently was talking “gibberish as far as incomplete sentences, hopping from one train of thought to another.” Id. at 116:18-19. Officer Nield told Earle that “St. Mary's had wanted her back and that she needed to go back to the hospital.” Id. at 25:13-15. Earle followed Officer Nield compliantly to his patrol car and rode in the back seat back to the hospital. See Id. at 27-28. Officer Nield did not handcuff Earle and did not wait for other police officers to join him at the scene. See Id. at 100:13-22. Officer Nield reported in his initial interview that Earle stated that she would walk away from the hospital again upon return. See Josh Nield Interview, ECF No. 311-7, at 8:14-16. Once arriving at St. Mary's, Officer Nield led Earle to the Nurse's Station in the Emergency Room. See Id. at 8-9.

         Officer Nield approached Nurse Andrea Heath at the Nurse's Station and told her that he was returning the walkaway. See Josh Nield Dep., ECF No. 298-7, at 29:9-10. Amy Elkins, an Emergency Room technician, stated that she saw Officer Nield with Earle at the Nurse's Station and that Officer Nield's “face was really really red.” Amy Elkins Interview, ECF No. 311-14, at 2. Nurse Heath advised Officer Nield that Earle was no longer a patient at the hospital and that the detention order had been denied, so Earle was free to leave. See Andrea Heath Dep., ECF No. 311-13, at 15:12-15.[4]

         The record is undisputed that Earle became agitated at the Nurse's Station during the conversation between Officer Nield and Nurse Heath; however, the extent of the behavior differs based on which person described the incident. Elkins recalled that Earle kept trying to walk away from Officer Nield, but Officer Nield kept “grabbing her by the sweater jerking her back”, which resulted in Earle's breast being exposed. Amy Elkins Interview, ECF No. 311-14, at 2. Nurse Heath recalled that Earle became aggressive with the officer, trying to hit Officer Nield with the equipment on the Nurse's Station. See Andrea Heath Dep., ECF No. 311-13, at 17:20; Andrea Heath Statement, ECF No. 311-17. Officer Nield remembered that Earle threw papers off the desk, which led him to try to get ahold of her. See Josh Nield Dep., ECF No. 298-7, at 29:13-22. Officer Nield grabbed both of Earle's arms and held them behind her back while standing at the Nurse's Station. Id. at 31:13-15. Officer Nield and Nurse Heath then decided to remove Earle from the Nurse's Station and take her to Room 26. Id. at 127-128.

         Officer Nield escorted Earle to Room 26 while holding her arms to her side. See Id. at 128:6-16; see also Melissa Blagg Statement, ECF No. 311-18, at 1 (“[Patient] was seen walking with officer to room 26 with shirt half off.”); Melissa Blagg Dep., ECF No. 311-16, at 47:19-20 (“He had her firmly by the arm and guiding her into the room.”). Officer Nield put Earle in the room and held the door shut to prevent Earle from leaving. Josh Nield Dep., ECF No. 298-7, at 40:21-23 (“I know she was pulling on the door because I remember holding the door.”). Officer Nield recalled Nurse Blagg informing him at this time that there was no active mental hygiene order in place and that Earle was free to leave. Id. at 41:3-5; see also Melissa Blagg Statement, ECF No. 311-18, at 1. Inside the room, Earle barricaded the door by placing a chair against the door and sitting on it. Josh Nield Dep., ECF No. 298-7, at 41-42. Officer Nield pushed the door open, and Earle jumped from the chair into a “fighting stance” near the back of the room. Id. at 44:14-15. Officer Nield told Earle that she was free to leave and offered her a ride from the hospital. Id. at 46:1-2. Nurse Heath also entered the room to ask Earle whether she wanted to go home or be checked back in as a patient. Andrea Heath Dep., ECF No. 311-13, at 22:19-20.

         Nurse Heath recalled that Earle became more agitated and aggravated, fixing her eyes on Officer Nield throughout the encounter. Id. at 22:21-24. Describing Earle's conduct as aggressive, Nurse Heath stated that Earle jumped on and off the bed repeatedly, moved around the room, grabbed cords to some medical equipment, and began to shove a computer around in attempts to turn it over. Id. at 23-24. Officer Nield recalled that Earle took her shirt off, manipulated her breasts, called him names, and threw some needle cap tops from her pocket at him and Nurse Heath. Josh Nield Dep., ECF No. 298-7, at 47:5-9. In response, Officer Nield arced his taser to try to gain compliance. Id. at 47-48; see also Josh Nield Interview, ECF No. 311-7, at 14:13. After arcing the taser, Officer Nield recalled that Earle shoved the computer cart towards him, but he managed to push the cart out of the way. Josh Nield Dep., ECF No. 298-7, at 51-52. Earle continued to move towards the corner of the room, and Officer Nield stepped closer towards her. Id. at 52:1. Soon after, Earle lunged towards Officer Nield, hitting him in the face and knocking his glasses off. Id. at 53:19-21; see also Andrea Heath Dep., ECF No. 311-13, at 25:2-4 (“I saw her hit him at least four times and knock his glasses from his face, and she was still jumping around and I got scared.”).

         At this point, Nurse Heath left the room and waited in the hallway because she was afraid that Earle would become aggressive towards her. Id. at 25. Officer Nield, therefore, was the only person in the room with Earle during the events that led to her death. Officer Nield stated that he tried to grab ahold of Earle's arms to restrain her with handcuffs and pull her down towards the floor for an arrest. Josh Nield Dep., ECF No. 298-7, at 55:5-8. Officer Nield grabbed Earle's left arm, put his hand behind Earle's neck, and pulled her towards him. Id. at 55-56. The two spun onto the bed in the room and fell to the ground. Id. at 56. From the hallway, Nurse Heath stated that she “did not physically see the patient [Earle] hit the ground, but moving toward the floor.” Andrea Heath Statement, ECF No. 311-17, at 3. Officer Nield stated that during the fall, he came down with his full body weight by his knee into Earle's chest. Id. at 56:20-24. Earle reached up to grab Officer Nield's vest, and Officer Nield secured both of Earle's arms. Id. at 58. Eventually, Officer Nield managed to cuff one of Earle's hands and flip Earle over to cuff the other hand. Id. at 59:17-21.

         Although Officer Nield was the only person in the room at the time of the incident, several nurses recalled the scene from the hallway. Elkins stated that Nurse Heath left the room but looked at Elkins, saying that “the police officer that [Earle] swung at … called [Earle] a fucking bitch and slammed her to the floor.” Amy Elkins Interview, ECF No. 311-14.[5] Nurse Blagg stated that she had heard movement in the room from the hallway and walked back to see what was happening inside. Melissa Blagg Statement, ECF No. 311-18, at 1. Nurse Blagg's statement indicates that she “saw [the] officer have [the] patient down on ground with his hand on patient's neck, hand cuffing patient.” Id. After this, she heard Officer Nield call Earle a “dumb fucking bitch.” Id.; see also Melissa Blagg Dep., ECF No. 311-16, at 51-52 (recalling that Officer Nield was not acting in a “calm and collected manner” towards Earle). Officer Nield does not deny that he used profanity towards Earle, but he could not remember the precise language directed at Earle. See Josh Nield Dep., ECF No. 298-7, at 60:16-19.

         Once Officer Nield subdued Earle, he realized that Earle was nonresponsive, so he called the nurses back into the room to assist. Id. at 61:1-6. When Nurse Heath reentered the room, Earle was lying on the floor and had agonal respirations. Andrea Heath Dep., ECF No. 311-13, at 27:18-19. Shortly thereafter, Earle was pronounced dead. See Report of Death Investigation, ECF No. 298-11. Earle suffered three fractured ribs, and the medical examiner concluded that the cause of death was a laceration of the heart due to compression of the thorax. Id. at 2-3. At the time of death, Earle was sixty-six years old and weighed 117 pounds. Id. at 3.

         Plaintiff's claims against Defendants include: constitutional violations for unlawful search and seizure and excessive use of force; failure to train and supervise employees; state law claims for assault and battery; negligent hiring; deliberate indifference; and false imprisonment. See Pl.'s Third Am. Compl., ECF No. 111. Defendants move for summary judgment on the federal claims on the basis of qualified immunity. See Defs.' Mem. of Law in Supp., ECF No. 298.

         II. Legal Standard

         To obtain summary judgment, the moving party must show that no genuine issue as to any material fact remains and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In considering a motion for summary judgment, the Court will not “weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter[.]” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). Instead, the Court will draw any permissible inference from the underlying facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-88 (1986). Any inference, however, “must fall within the range of reasonable probability and not be so tenuous as to amount to speculation or conjecture.” JKC Holding Co. v. Wash. Sports Ventures, Inc., 264 F.3d 459, 465 (4th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted).

         Although the Court will view all underlying facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, the nonmoving party nonetheless must offer some “concrete evidence from which a reasonable juror could return a verdict in his [or her] favor[.]” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256. Summary judgment is appropriate when the nonmoving party has the burden of proof on an essential element of his or her case and does not make, after adequate time for discovery, a showing sufficient to establish that element. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). The nonmoving party must satisfy this burden of proof by offering more than a mere “scintilla of evidence” in support of his or her position. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. “Mere speculation by the non-movant cannot create a genuine issue of material fact” to avoid summary judgment. JKC Holding, 264 F.3d at 465.

         III. ...


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