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Howard v. Wilkinson

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Orlando Division

April 2, 2018




         This cause comes before the Court on the following:

1. Defendant Orange County, Florida's, Motion to Dismiss Count Ten of Plaintiff's Complaint (Doc. 23), filed October 2, 2017;
2. Plaintiffs' Response to Defendant Orange County, Florida's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 40), filed October 16, 2017;
3. Defendants Penelope Gray, Nancy Mendoza, Andrea Distin-Campbell, and Rodney Martin's Motion to Dismiss Parties and Counts Six, Seven, Eight, and Nine of the Complaint (Doc. 41), filed October 17, 2017;
4. Plaintiffs' Response to Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Counts Six Through Nine of the Complaint (Doc. 46), filed October 31, 2017;
5. Officer-Defendants Richard Wilkinson, Richard Leblanc, Ryan Wilson, James Nelson, and Juan Padilla's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 44), filed October 24, 2017;
6. Plaintiffs' Response to Defendants Wilkinson, Leblanc, Wilson, Nelson, and Padilla's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 47), filed November 7, 2017; and
7. Officer-Defendants' Reply to Plaintiffs' Response to Their Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 50), filed November 27, 2017.

         With briefing complete, the matter is ripe for review.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         This action centers on the death of William Howard (“Mr. Howard”). Mr. Howard died from injuries sustained while in the custody of correctional officers at the Orange County Jail (or the “Jail”), who broke Mr. Howard's neck while relocating him to a different cell within the Jail. His injuries went untreated for more than twenty-four hours, and at 9:10 a.m. on November 20, 2016, Mr. Howard was pronounced dead. His family brought this action, claiming wrongful death and § 1983 claims for Fourteenth Amendment violations, against Orange County, Florida, and various Jail employees.[2] Defendants deny any responsibility.

         The events leading to Mr. Howard's death began on November 16, 2016. On that day, Mr. Howard suffered a mental breakdown, when he returned home from an out-of-state funeral for his niece and her three children, who were brutally murdered. (Doc. 1, ¶ 17.) A domestic dispute unfolded and Mr. Howard was arrested for domestic violence and taken to the Orange County Jail. (Id.)

         Mr. Howard was seventy-five years old at the time, and his initial medical screening at the Jail revealed that he had glaucoma. (Id. ¶ 18.) He was first placed in a standard cell for detainees, but was moved to a suicide prevention cell on November 18, 2016, after nurses observed him in an “agitated” state wandering around his cell. (Id. ¶¶ 19- 20.) At 12:20 p.m., a licensed psychologist assessed Mr. Howard, and documented that he was disoriented, had an incoherent thought process, and was suffering from memory problems. (Id. ¶ 21.) Specifically, the psychologist described him as “very confused, and unable to answer questions in a reality based manner.” (Id. ¶ 22.) Jail staff decided to return Mr. Howard to a psychological observation cell. (Id. ¶ 23.)

         At 10:50 p.m., the Officer Defendants arrived to transport Mr. Howard. (Id. ¶¶ 23- 24.) Gathering outside the cell, one officer mentioned to the others that Mr. Howard was “blind.” (Id. ¶ 25.) After ordering him to approach the cell door to be handcuffed, the Officer Defendants banged loudly on the cell door to alert Mr. Howard as to the door's location. (Id. ¶¶ 24-25.) Mr. Howard failed to approach the door in response, so Defendant Padilla determined that force was necessary to remove him. (Id. ¶ 26.) They summoned Defendant Nelson to film the use of force. (Id. ¶ 27.)

         Before entering the cell, Defendant Padilla ordered Defendant Wilson to spray Mr. Howard with Oleoresin Capsicum (“pepper spray”). (Id. ¶ 28.) Defendant Wilson complied, pepper spraying Mr. Howard in the face through an opening in the cell door. (Id.) Coupled with his glaucoma, the pepper spray blinded Mr. Howard. (Id. ¶ 29.) Mr. Howard initially began to approach the cell door, but retreated amid the confusion. (Id. ¶ 30.) The Officers then entered the cell, where Mr. Howard was cowering in the corner. (Id. ¶ 32.) The officers then bombarded Mr. Howard with commands, one yelling “Don't move!” while another ordered, “put your hands behind your back!” (Id. ¶ 33.)

         Next, the Officers grabbed Mr. Howard and pinned him against the wall. (Id. ¶ 34- 35.) They did not handcuff him. Instead, the Officers then ripped Mr. Howard from the wall and slammed him down head first into the concrete floor, breaking his neck. (Id. ¶ 35.) They handcuffed him while he lay prostrate on the ground, and four Officers then grabbed and carried Mr. Howard to the psychological observation cell. (Id. ¶¶ 38-39.) While the Officers lugged his body, they let his head dangle beneath his shoulders without support. (Id. ¶ 39.) He could not hold it up on his own. (Id.) After arriving at the new cell, the Officers stripped Mr. Howard and left him naked on the floor. (Id. ¶ 40.) Upon completing the operation, Defendant Padilla congratulated the other officers on their work, telling them “good job.” (Id. ¶ 41.)

         Medical personnel at the Jail did not perform a medical assessment or treat Mr. Howard's injuries for more than twenty-four hours following the use of force, despite being on notice of the use of force, numerous pain complaints, and behavior indicating Mr. Howard was injured. (Id. ¶ 42.) The Nurse Defendants did, however, view and make perfunctory assessments of Mr. Howard in the hours following his injuries. (Id. ¶ 43.) Defendant Martin was the registered nurse on duty at the Jail on the night of the use of force event. (Id. ¶ 49.) She was aware of the use of force, but did not perform or order a medical assessment of, or treatment for, Mr. Howard. (Id.) Defendant Mendoza visited Mr. Howard's cell twice in the immediate aftermath and noted that he was restless and allegedly pacing. (Id. ¶ 44.) The following morning, Defendant Mendoza observed Mr. Howard rolling side to side on the cell floor. (Id. ¶ 45.) Defendant Mendoza took no substantive action. Later that morning, Defendant Gray visited Mr. Howard's cell three times, observing him laying prone on the floor, complaining of neck and back pain. (Id. ¶ 46.) Defendant Gray returned in the late afternoon, documented Mr. Howard's continued neck and back pain complaints, and noted that he could move his extremities and turn his head. (Id. ¶ 47.) Again, no further action was taken. That evening, Defendant Distin-Campbell visited Mr. Howard's cell and observed him laying supine in his bunk. (Id. ¶ 48.)

         At 9:52 p.m., a correctional officer found Mr. Howard unresponsive in his cell. (Id. ¶ 50.) He was taken to Orlando Regional Medical Center in critical condition, and pronounced the dead the following morning. (Id. ¶¶ 51-52.) An autopsy determined that Mr. Howard's cause of death was blunt force impact resulting in neck fracture with cervical spinal cord trauma and hypoxic encephalopathy. (Id. ¶ 53.) The medical examiner ruled Mr. Howard's death a homicide. (Id.) Following this ruling, Plaintiff brought this action.

         The Complaint proceeds in thirteen Counts. Counts I through IV allege 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims for excessive use of force against the Officer Defendants (apart from Defendant Nelson). Count V brings a § 1983 excessive force claim against Defendant Nelson-who filmed the use of force incident-premised on Defendant Nelson's deliberate indifference to the excessive use of force. Counts VI through IX assert § 1983 claims against the Nurse Defendants for their deliberate indifference to Mr. Howard's serious medical needs. Count X alleges a municipal liability claim against Orange County, Florida, for delegating final policymaking authority to the Nurse Defendants. Counts XI through XIII aver wrongful death claims against Orange County premised on (XI) battery, (XII) negligent hiring and retention, and (XIII) negligence.

         All Defendants have separately moved to dismiss. (Docs. 23, 41, 44.)


         A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss tests the legal sufficiency of the plaintiff's complaint. To survive the motion, the complaint must “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A claim is plausible on its face when the plaintiff alleges enough facts to “allow[] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). The mere recitation of the elements of a claim is not enough, and the district court need not give any credence to legal conclusions that are unsupported by sufficient factual material. Id. District courts must accept all well-pleaded allegations within the complaint and any documents attached thereto as true and must read the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Hunnings v. Texaco, Inc., 29 F.3d 1480, 1484 (11th Cir. 1994) (per curiam).


         A. Orange County, ...

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