Court Revives Suit Against Reno Police Over Detainee Suicide

Read article here: Metropolitan News Enterprise

Monday, July 27, 2009

Court Revives Suit Against Reno Police Over Detainee Suicide
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Friday revived a lawsuit against the city of Reno, Nev., and two police officers arising from the death of a mentally ill detainee—one of six individuals who committed suicide at the Washoe County Jail in less than 20 months.

Reversing a grant of summary judgment by U.S. District Judge Howard D. McKibben of the District of Nevada, the panel ruled that a reasonable jury could have found Ryan Ashton and David Robertson had been deliberately indifferent to Brenda Clustka’s medical needs by not reporting her threat of suicide and attempt to choke herself with a seatbelt while being transported to jail.

A jury also could have reasonably determined that the city’s failure to train its law enforcement officials and implement written policies on suicide prevention constituted deliberate indifference and were, independently, a moving force behind the officers’ violation of Clustka’s constitutional rights, the panel said.

Clustka had a history of mental health problems, alcohol abuse and run-ins with the law. Between 2001 and 2004, Clustka was involuntarily committed to the Nevada Mental Health Institute on three separate occasions for threatening or attempting suicide.

In April 2005, after another suicide threat, Clustka was again admitted to NMHI but released 24 hours later, having been assessed as posing a “low risk of harm.”

Police Respond

Several hours after she was discharged, Robertson and Ashton were called to a location where Clustka was passed out on the sidewalk. Ashton had been one of the responding officers to a domestic battery call involving Clustka and her mother just over a month prior.

Finding Clustka to be “grossly intoxicated,” the officers said they decided to take her into protective custody until she sobered up.

They ran a “wants and warrants check” which warned of Clustka’s violent tendencies, drug abuse, alcoholism, mental health problems, and a restraining order obtained against her by her mother.

En route to the jail, Ashton said he observed Clustka remove her seat belt and wrap it around her neck in an apparent effort to choke herself. When the officers removed it, they said she screamed something to the effect of: “Just kill me. I’ll kill myself then.”

Both Ashton and Robertson testified that they interpreted Clustka’s words and actions as a mere attempt to get their attention and that they did not believe Clustka’s threats to be serious.

Neither officer notified jail personnel that Clustka had tried to choke herself and threatened to commit suicide, nor did they inform their supervising sergeant of the incident.

Clustka was held at the Washoe County Jail for nearly four hours, and was released without further inquiry.

The next day she went to her mother’s home, in violation of a restraining order against her. She was then arrested by two other Reno police officers.

No Suicide Watch

After Clustka was booked, she was recommended for assignment to the general inmate population. Because Clustka had been on suicide watch during her previous detention in March, she was placed in the mental health unit in a red jumper to alert staff that she was a high risk detainee but she was not placed on suicide watch.

She committed suicide by hanging herself with a bed sheet the next afternoon, less than 48 hours after her threat to Ashton and Robertson and less than 30 days after another detainee had committed suicide. In all, six detainees committed suicide at the Washoe County Jail between January 2004 and August 2005.

Clustka’s surviving children sued Robertson, Ashton and the City of Reno under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, but the district judge found the plaintiffs failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the officers were deliberately indifferent to a serious medical need by failing to report the choking incident and suicide threat, and whether such failure to report was the proximate cause of Clustka’s death.

As a result, McKibben determined that there was no basis on which a jury could find either individual liability or municipal liability and granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants. But Ninth Circuit Judges Stephen Reinhardt and Mary M. Schroeder and Senior Judge Dorothy W. Nelson disagreed.

Reinhardt posited in his opinion for the appellate court that the choking incident, accompanied by Clustka’s threat to kill herself and undisputed history of mental health problems, alcohol abuse, substance abuse, and suicidal tendencies, would support a jury finding of threat to Clustka’s health that was objectively serious, and if untreated, was likely to cause her significant injury.

“An objective juror could certainly conclude that in light of all the circumstances Clustka’s actions evidenced a serious medical need,” Reinhardt wrote. “The defendants’ attempts to cast doubt on the gravity of Clustka’s words and actions merely create a fact question for the jury to resolve.”

He also reasoned that the officers’ admitted knowledge of Clustka’s mental and emotional instability, coupled with their observation of her dangerous behavior, provided circumstantial evidence sufficient to create a genuine issue of fact regarding the officers’ subjective awareness of Clustka’s mental instability and need for medical intervention.

As for causation, Reinhardt suggested that a jury could reasonably find that the officers’ failure to report Clustka’s behavior deprived the individuals who evaluated her of critical information, which foreseeably undermined her access to effective medical evaluations and adequate mental health care.

Reinhardt said that the Eighth Amendment right of a detainee who attempts or threatens suicide en route to jail to have the transporting officers report the incident to those who will next be responsible for her custody and safety was clearly established, but that summary judgment on the issue of qualified immunity would be inappropriate as the issue of whether the officers had violated Clustka’s rights remained in dispute.

Turning to the question of municipal liability, Reinhardt noted the city did not challenge the plaintiff’s evidence that the city had not trained its officers in suicide prevention and the identification of suicide risks or have a written policy on reporting suicide threats at the time of Clustka’s death.

“Given the predictability of suicide risk among detainees, and the likelihood of constitutional violations if suicide threats go unreported, the plaintiffs have presented a genuine issue for the jury on whether the failure to adopt and implement policies on suicide prevention was deliberately indifferent, and whether that deliberate indifference was a ‘moving force’ behind the violation of Clustka’s constitutional rights,” Reinhardt said.

However, the panel affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of the city based on its failure to address alleged deficiencies in Robertson’s job performance or to discipline Robertson and Ashton for not reporting the choking incident and suicide threat, as neither provided a separate basis for municipal liability.

The case is Conn v. City of Reno, 07-15572.

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