Appeals court partly reverses lower court decision in prisoner death case

By Anna Aguillard | Jul 29, 2014

NEW ORLEANS – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has partly reversed and remanded a district court’s decision in favor of the defendant in a case involving a Dallas County prison inmate’s death.

In January 2010, Gregory Maurice Kitchens, while detained at Dallas County Jail, was placed under psychiatric evaluation after being observed mumbling, walking backwards and rummaging through other peoples’ property. While under evaluation, he urinated himself, cried, stated that he heard his mother’s voice, admitted to having suicidal thoughts and repeatedly hit his head on the cell door and walls. During one particular display of this behavior, Dallas County jail officers Guzman and Myers attempted to restrain Kitchens by performing a “neck controlled take down” and by utilizing pepper spray. According to inmate witness affidavits, the officers kicked, choked, and stomped on the detainee even after he was restrained and used pepper spray even after he had stopped resisting. During the incident, Gregory Kitchens stopped breathing and was pronounced dead, the suit states.

The autopsy cites the cause of death as mechanical asphyxia, the fact that one officer was kneeling on the decedent’s back during restraint, physiologic stress, exposure to chemicals in pepper spray, morbid obesity and an enlarged heart.

On Sept. 10, 2010, the deceased’s widow Denise Kitchen filed a lawsuit, claiming that the individual officers of Dallas County jail used excessive force against her late husband, and that the officers were acting with deliberate indifference to her husband’s medical needs by failing to contact special medical personnel to aid in Kitchen’s restraint. She argued that each of the nine accused officers should be held with either direct or bystander liability for her husband’s death, despite the officers’ eligibility for qualified immunity as government officials. She also argued that Dallas County Jail was liable as a municipality for failing to provide adequate training to its prison officers.

On Dec. 31, 2012, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment dismissing the widow’s claims. On April 24, 2013, the district court granted the motion in its entirety, concluding that the plaintiff did not present enough evidence of either excessive force or deliberate indifference. Because it determined that there was not enough evidence to create a genuine dispute of material facts, the court had no reason to address the individual officer’s direct or bystander liability, or Dallas County’s liability as a city.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed and remanded the district court’s decision in part and affirmed its decision in part.

In the opinion, Judges W. Eugene Davis wrote that the record did not present a genuine dispute of material fact regarding the use of excessive force.

Citing Hudson v. McMillian, Davis held that the use of excessive force must be determined by factors such as the extent of injury suffered, the need for application of force, and the threat perceived. He concluded that, based on the case record, there was a dispute of material facts regarding these factors – contrary to the prison inmate affidavits, the officers claimed that they did not continue using force upon Kitchens after his restraint.

Davis wrote that the district court erred in evaluating the credibility of evidence presented by inmates as inferior to evidence presented by officers and remanded the case to the district court to resolve the disputing claims through a trial. If a trial determines that some individual officers did indeed use excessive force, then the district court must determine whether or not use of this force undermines individual officers’ qualified immunity.

However, the Court affirmed the district court’s decision granting summary judgment based on insufficient evidence for the plaintiff’s remaining claims. It stated that the plaintiff did not present sufficient evidence that prison officers deliberately refrained from contacting medical personnel, because the need for specialized medical personnel was “not so apparent that even a layman” would recognize it.

Additionally, the Court affirmed the district court’s decision regarding the liability of Dallas County as a municipality. It stated that in order to prove the county failed to provide adequate training for its officers, the plaintiff needed to demonstrate that the municipality “had a pattern of similar violations” or that the behavior was highly indicative of a particular failure to train. Because the plaintiff did not present sufficient evidence regarding the occurrence of such behavior, the appeals court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the claim.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit directed the district court to proceed to trial in order to determine the individual officers’ degree of liability for use of excessive force.

The case was heard by Judges W. Eugene Davis, Jennifer Elrod and Gregg Costa.

Case No. 10545.

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