Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Silcox v. Hunter

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

July 31, 2018

EAAN SILCOX, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Aaron John Silcox, Plaintiff,
v.
MARK HUNTER, in his official capacity as Columbia County Sheriff, Defendant.

          ORDER

          TIMOTHY J. CORRIGAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         A pretrial detainee committed suicide in the Columbia County Detention Facility. Is the Sheriff liable under either § 1983 or in negligence?

         Plaintiff Eaan Silcox, as Personal Representative of the estate of Aaron Silcox, seeks damages from the Sheriff of Columbia County after Aaron Silcox committed suicide as a pretrial detainee in the Columbia County Detention Facility (the “jail”). Currently pending before the Court are Defendant Sheriff Mark Hunter's Amended Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. 46), and Daubert Motion, (Doc. 39), and Plaintiff's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, (Doc. 41). Plaintiff responded to both of Hunter's motions, (Docs. 47; 49), and Hunter responded to Plaintiff's motion, (Doc. 48). On June 18, 2018, the Court held a hearing on the motions, the record of which is incorporated herein. (Doc. 53).

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Silcox's Arrest, Medical Evaluations, and Detention

         On June 13, 2015, Jessica Hosford called the Columbia County Dispatch to alert them that Aaron Silcox, the father of two of her children, had overdosed on an unknown substance. (Doc. 40-1 at 1-2). Hosford provided Silcox's number to deputies, and they obtained a GPS location for his phone. (Doc. 40-1 at 1-2). When deputies arrived, they found a man who identified himself as John Price, who told the deputies where to find Silcox. (Doc. 40-1 at 1-2). Upon arriving at this new location, the deputies realized that the man they had just spoken with was Silcox. (Doc. 40-1 at 1-2).

         When the deputies returned to the previous location, Silcox was not there, so they called for a K-9 dog to help search the nearby woods. (Doc. 40-1 at 1-2). Once found, Silcox did not comply with the deputies' commands and was bitten by the police dog. (Doc. 40-1 at 1-2). Silcox told a deputy that he wanted to kill himself and had taken a “handful” of his prescription medication and aspirin. (Doc. 40-1 at 1-2). Emergency Medical Services transported Silcox to Shands Lake Shore Hospital where a physician determined Silcox should be taken to a facility for an involuntary mental health examination under Florida's Baker Act, Florida Statute § 394.463. (Doc. 40-1 at 1-3). Silcox's toxicology screenings did not return abnormal levels for the pills he claimed to have ingested, but did test positive for the presence of amphetamines, methamphetamines, and THC. (Doc. 40-2 at 4). Emergency room personnel treated Silcox for dog bite injuries he sustained during his arrest, and self-inflicted cuts to his forearm, which Silcox told the emergency room nurse he did with a pocket knife in an attempt to kill himself. (Doc. 40-2 at 1).

         Silcox remained in the hospital overnight, and while he was there Hosford called the jail to make sure they knew Silcox was suicidal. (Doc. 49-13 at 99). Although Silcox was still in the hospital, the jail representative told Hosford that Silcox was at the jail and that they would take care of him. (Doc. 49-13 at 99-100).

         The next day, June 14, 2015, Silcox was involuntarily transferred to Meridian Behavioral Healthcare in Lake City for psychiatric evaluation. (Doc. 40-2 at 2). Dr. Robert Bachus[1] evaluated Silcox at Meridian. (Doc. 40-4 at 1). Bachus is a licensed psychiatrist who had approximately twenty years of experience. (Doc. 49-17 at 5-7). Bachus determined that Silcox “is a chronic drug abuser who experiences bouts of depression associated with consequences of his addiction. He is psychiatrically stable enough to be placed in jail for drug associated charges. No. psych meds indicated.” (Doc. 49-17 at 27); (see Doc. 40-4 at 1). Although Bachus believed that Silcox was a suicide risk, he did not indicate that opinion anywhere in his records nor did he tell anyone from Hunter's office. (Doc. 49-17 at 44).

         After being discharged from Meridian, deputies brought Silcox to the jail. (Doc. 40-5 at 1). On his initial medical questionnaire, Silcox stated that he had never attempted suicide nor did he feel like attempting suicide at that time. (Doc. 40-5 at 1). During previous jail stays, Silcox had specified on his initial medical questionnaire that he had previously attempted or contemplated suicide. (Docs. 49-2; 49-3). The following morning, June 16, 2015, jail nurse Rex Nichola denoted on Silcox's medical screening form that he had mental health problems and had attempted suicide two days prior, but that he was not currently contemplating suicide and did not have feelings of hopelessness. (Doc. 40-5 at 4). Based on his assessment, Nichola recommended Silcox be placed in the jail's general population.[2] (Doc. 40-5 at 4).

         Two days later, Silcox was caught fighting another inmate, so under jail policy, both inmates were moved to the F-max dorm for administrative confinement. (Doc. 46 at 6). The F-max dorm has eighteen cells and houses inmates needing protective custody, administrative confinement, or disciplinary confinement. (Doc. 49-15 at 30, 36). In the F-max dorm, the officer on duty is located in an officer station that has a computer for the electronic logs and closed circuit monitors for watching the movements of the inmates in their cells. (Doc. 49-15 at 29, 53).

         Detention Officer Dillon Moore was responsible for the F-max dorm on June 18, 2015. (Doc. 49-15 at 13). At approximately 7:00 p.m. that evening, Silcox arrived at the F-max dorm. (Doc. 40-8 at 1). Moore watched Silcox go into cell number two, which was unoccupied and had a bunkbed, and throw his sheet, along with other belongings, onto the top bunk. (Doc. 49-15 at 35-36, 38- 39). Moore had never met Silcox and did not know anything about his prior suicide attempts or mental health issues. (Doc. 49-15 at 39-40). When Silcox first arrived, Moore knew he was upset because “[h]e was just in a fight. And I was watching and he sat down, lay on the floor, sit back up and, I mean, he was just everywhere.” (Doc. 49-15 at 53).

         Approximately thirty minutes later, a civilian came into the F-max dorm to pass out canteen.[3] (Doc. 40-8 at 1). During canteen distribution, Moore left the officer station and went into the dorm hallway to “provide order” while the civilian and a trustee[4] distributed canteen to the F-max inmates. (Doc. 49-15 at 25-27). During this time, Moore was about thirty feet away with his back to Silcox's cell. (Doc. 49-15 at 20, 37). Because Moore left the officer station, Detention Officer Tiffany Riley, who was working in the adjacent female dorm, occupied the F-max officer station to ensure Moore's safety. (Docs. 49-15 at 32- 33; 49-16 at 19).

         Moore and Riley's recollections of the events differ. Moore testified that after canteen distribution in the F-max, he accompanied the civilian to another dorm for canteen distribution, then used the restroom, and finally returned to the officer station. (Doc. 49-15 at 44). His log states that the civilian left the F-max at 7:41 p.m. (Doc. 40-8 at 2). Moore recalled working on paperwork in the F-max officer station when Sergeant Melvin Sheppard, a jail supervisor, arrived. (Doc. 49-15 at 51). When Sheppard arrived, he and Moore both noticed on the monitor that Silcox was not moving. (Docs. 49-15 at 54-56; 40-6 at 3). Moore went to Silcox's cell and found him hanging by his bedsheet, which was tied to the top bunk. (Doc. 49-15 at 105-06).

         However, Riley claims that immediately following the F-max canteen distribution, she accompanied the civilian back to the female dorm for canteen distribution. (Doc. 49-16 at 16). According to Riley's deposition testimony, [5] her log states that the civilian entered the female dorm to distribute canteen at 7:47 p.m. (Doc. 49-16 at 66). Riley stated that while she was distributing canteen with the civilian in the female dorm, Moore yelled to her that one of the F-max inmates had hung himself. (Doc. 49-16 at 11-13). At that time, she stopped canteen and went to assist Moore, which she noted in her log as being around 8:20 p.m.[6] (Doc. 49-16 at 66, 109-11).

         A subsequent investigation by FDLE investigators revealed that Silcox initiated his suicide at 7:25 p.m., and he adjusted the bedsheet twice before ceasing all movement on his third attempt at 7:33 p.m. (Doc. 40-7 at 2). No. officer entered the room until 8:11 p.m. (Doc. 40-7 at 2). Officers performed CPR on Silcox for fourteen minutes until emergency medical services arrived. (Doc. 40-7 at 2). At 8:26 p.m., Silcox was pronounced dead. (Doc. 40-7 at 2).

         B. Columbia County Jail Policies and Training

         The F-max had a Post Order, (Doc. 40-16), which was in a binder in the officer station, and each officer working that post was expected to know and abide by its contents. (Doc. 49-15 at 98-99). The F-max Post Order required formal counts of the inmates at 6:00 a.m., 6:00 p.m., and 11:00 p.m., and informal counts every hour between midnight and 4:00 a.m. (Doc. 40-16 at 3). Other dorms had similar orders pertaining specifically to those dorms. Additionally, the jail had General Orders that covered other topics, such as Special Management Inmates and Mental Health Services. (Doc. 40-13 at 5-10).

         General Order 19.10, titled “Special Management Inmates, ” provides instructions for handling inmates on suicide watch and states: “Direct observation shall be required for any inmate restrained to protect themselves [sic] or others from harm or when ordered by the health authority or designee.” (Doc. 40-13 at 6). The Order further states: “Any inmate who threatens verbally or by note, or attempts suicide is placed on suicide prevention. A mental health or medical physician may recommend that an inmate be placed on suicide prevention after an interview with said inmate.” (Doc. 40-13 at 6). An inmate on suicide watch is not allowed to have bedding in his cell. (Doc. 40-13 at 7). Additionally, General Order 19.17, titled “Mental Health Services, ” provides “guidelines for the provision of necessary and adequate psychiatric care and services at the Columbia County Detention Facility.” (Doc. 40-13 at 9). The policy requires officers to notify medical personnel if they observe certain listed behaviors. (Doc. 40-13 at 9). In addition, officers are to “ensure that all items that could be used by the inmate to inflict self-harm are taken away from the inmate, the cell area and the holding area.” (Doc. 40-13 at 9).

         Hunter also states that he had an unwritten policy of having arrestees who exhibited signs of suicidal tendencies or ideation cleared by psychiatric professionals at Meridian prior to being transported to the jail. (Doc. 46 at 15). Riley stated that at least once a year officers had refresher training on dealing with mental illness. (Doc. 49-16 at 90-91). Moore stated that he received training on how to supervise high risk inmates, but not on identifying suicidal inmates or suicide attempts. (Doc. 49-15 at 10-11).

         C. Procedural History

         On December 6, 2016, Plaintiff filed his original complaint, (Doc. 1), and on July 5, 2017, filed the Amended Complaint, (Doc. 23). The Amended Complaint alleges one count against Hunter and Moore for violating 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and one count against Hunter alleging wrongful death under Florida law. (Doc. 23). Moore settled with Plaintiff at mediation, (Doc. 29), and was subsequently dismissed from the suit with prejudice, (Doc. 32). On January 8, 2018, Hunter filed his amended answer and affirmative defenses. (Doc. 35). On January 12, 2018, Hunter filed a Daubert motion to exclude Plaintiff's expert Jeff Eiser, (Doc. 39), and a motion for summary judgment, (Doc. 40). On that same date, Plaintiff filed a motion for partial summary judgment, seeking to exclude several of Hunter's affirmative defenses. (Doc. 41). On January 16, 2018, Hunter, filed his Amended Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 46).

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Plaintiff's § 1983 claim

         “Every person who, under color of [law] . . ., subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2012). Thus, a plaintiff asserting a claim under § 1983 must demonstrate that (1) a person, (2) acting under the color of law, (3) violated his constitutional rights. Id. There is no dispute that the Sheriff and his employees were acting under the color of law, thus, only the first and third elements are at issue.

         A sheriff sued in his official capacity is effectively an action against the governmental entity the sheriff represents, in this case Columbia County. Cook ex rel. Estate of Tessier v. Sheriff of Monroe Cty., 402 F.3d 1092, 1115 (11th Cir. 2005). A municipality, such as Columbia County, is considered a person under § 1983, but its liability is limited to situations where a municipal policy caused the deprivation of rights. Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 691 (1978) (holding that a municipality cannot be held vicariously liable under § 1983); see City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 385 (1989). A municipal policy can be in the form of: (1) a written policy; (2) a custom, which is “a practice so settled and permanent that it takes on the force of the law[;]” (3) a decision by someone with final decision making authority; or (4) a policy of inadequate training or supervision, all of which must cause the alleged deprivation of constitutional rights. McDowell v. Brown, 392 F.3d 1283, 1290 (11th Cir. 2004).

         Plaintiff alleges that Hunter had a policy of failing to protect pretrial detainees from self-harm, (Doc. 23 ¶ 39); Hunter did not create, implement, and enforce policies to prevent suicides, (Doc. 23 ¶ 40); and Hunter did not adequately train jail staff to identify and monitor suicidal inmates or to recognize and prevent suicide attempts, (Doc. 23 ¶ 40).

         1. Hunter's policies for handling high risk detainees.

         Plaintiff alleges that Hunter had a policy of failing to protect detainees. (Doc. 23 ¶ 39). In support, Plaintiff identifies a prior suicide in the jail and argues that for both suicides, Hunter found that no one violated any prison policy-which accentuates the need for better policies. (Doc. 49 at 7). Plaintiff's claim fails.

         To establish Hunter's liability based on a municipal policy, Plaintiff must show that he suffered a constitutional deprivation as a result of Hunter's policy, or a “practice or custom that is so pervasive, as to be the functional equivalent of a policy . . . .” Goodman v. Kimbrough, 718 F.3d 1325, 1335 (11th Cir. 2013) (quotation marks omitted) (quoting Hale v. Tallapoosa Cty., 50 F.3d 1579, 1582 (11th Cir. 1995)). For a stated policy to be unconstitutional, it must result in deliberate indifference to constitutional violations. Id. Thus, Plaintiff must establish that Hunter's policies were facially unconstitutional or that despite having a facially valid policy, it was custom to ignore it. See McDowell, 392 F.3d at 1290.

         Here, Plaintiff fails to show that Hunter's policies or customs were unconstitutional. Hunter had policies in place to protect detainees who were at risk of suicide. General Order 19.10 provides instructions to officers for handling “special management inmates, ” including those with suicidal tendencies or ideations. (Doc. 40-13 at 5). General Order 19.17 instructs officers on how to handle inmates with mental health issues. (Doc. 40-13 at 9-10). Additionally, Hunter had an informal policy of having arrestees like Silcox evaluated by psychiatric professionals before being taken to the jail-which is exactly what happened here. (Doc. 40-13 at 2). These policies obviate Plaintiff's arguments that Hunter had a policy of failing to protect pretrial detainees from self-harm, (Doc. 23 ¶ 39), and that Hunter did not create, implement, and enforce policies to prevent suicides, (Doc. 23 ¶ 40).

         Plaintiff has also not shown how these policies could have caused Silcox's death. See Harris, 489 U.S. at 385 (explaining that there must be a direct causal link between the municipal policy and the alleged constitutional deprivation). Hunter's policies for handling suicidal detainees were never triggered for Silcox because the medical professionals who evaluated him never expressly classified him as high risk. (Docs. 46 at 21; 40-4 at 1; 40-5 at 3-4). Dr. Bachus wrote that Silcox was stable enough for jail, (Doc. 40-4 at 1), and Nurse Nichola recommended that Silcox be placed in general population, (Doc. 40-5 at 3-4). Just because Hunter's policies did not prevent Silcox's suicide does not mean that they caused it. See Cook, 402 F.3d at 1116 (stating there must be a causal link between the policy and the alleged deprivation of rights); see also Harris, 489 U.S. at 386 (explaining that an unconstitutional or negligent application of an otherwise valid policy, without more, is insufficient to hold a municipality liable).

         This case might have been different had Silcox not been seen at Meridian. Silcox was arrested because Hosford called Columbia County dispatch to alert them to Silcox's potential suicide attempt. (Doc. 40-1 at 1-2). And after he had been taken into custody, Hosford called the jail to remind them that Silcox needed to be closely watched because she believed he was suicidal. (Doc. 49-13 at 99). However, between Hosford's warnings and Silcox's placement in the jail, Silcox was evaluated by several medical professionals, none of whom declared him a suicide risk. (Docs. 40-4 at 1, 40-5 at 2-5). Hunter relied on the opinions of medical professionals that Silcox was no longer “imminently a danger to himself or others[, ]” (Doc. 46 at 21 (quotations omitted) (quoting Bachus's deposition at 29)), and, thus, placed Silcox in general population as opposed to suicide watch.

         Hunter's reliance on medical opinions-even if those opinions were not fully understood-does not constitute deliberate indifference to Silcox's constitutional rights. See Keith v. DeKalb Cty., 749 F.3d 1034, 1050 (11th Cir. 2014) (“A sheriff cannot be held liable for failing to segregate mental health inmates whom trained medical personnel have concluded do not present a risk of harm to themselves or others.”). Plaintiff argues that Bachus never said that Silcox was no longer a suicide risk, and in fact believed he was a suicide risk. (Doc. 49 at 8-10). However, Bachus never said this to any of Hunter's employees, (Doc. 49-17 at 44), and such assessment is not clear from Bachus's discharge note, (Doc. 40-4 at 1). Moreover, Hunter reasonably believed that Bachus would not have discharged Silcox from Meridian if he posed a risk to himself, (Doc. 46 at 21); and even assuming, arguendo, that such belief was negligent, it is nonetheless insufficient to establish deliberate indifference. See Harris, 489 U.S. at 388 n.7, 388-91 (explaining that the standard for deliberate indifference is not based on the negligence of an employee but the training program as a whole in relation to the duties of the individual officers); Keith, 749 F.3d at 1053 (“[T]he deliberate indifference standard requires a showing of more than gross negligence.”).

         To be liable, Hunter must have had “knowledge of ‘a strong likelihood rather than a mere possibility that the self-infliction of harm [would] occur.'” Cook, 402 F.3d at 1116 (quoting Cagle v. Sutherland, 334 F.3d 980, 986 (11th Cir. 2003)). But, in the three days leading up to his death, Silcox displayed no warning signs that he was contemplating suicide. In fact, Silcox affirmed on his booking medical questionnaire that he was not contemplating suicide, (Doc. 40-5 at 1), whereas on previous visits to the jail he had informed jail staff that he had attempted suicide or felt like attempting suicide at that time, (Doc. 49-2 at 1). Moreover, Hunter had information indicating that some of Silcox's prior suicide attempts may not have been genuine. (Docs. 40-2 at 4; 49-17 at 50-51). Silcox told his arresting officers “that he took a handful of his prescription medication, Seroquil, [sic] and several aspirin[, ]” (Doc. 40-1 at 2), and the emergency room nurse and physician that “he took a bottle of [aspirin] and about 6 Somas[, ]” (Doc. 40-2 at 1-2). However, his toxicology tests did not detect abnormal aspirin levels, and his drug screen only yielded positive results for amphetamines, methamphetamines, and THC. (Doc. 40-2 at 4). Additionally, Bachus opined that at least one of Silcox's prior “suicide attempts” was likely just a ploy to avoid going to jail. (Doc. 49-17 at 50-51). On these facts, and as a matter ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.