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Estate of Burgaz v. Jefferson County Board of Commissioners.

No. 21-1049. D.Colo. Judge Tymkovich. 42 USC § 1983—Deliberate Indifference—Motion to Dismiss—Qualified Immunity—Supplemental Jurisdiction over State Law Claims.

April 14, 2022

Burgaz was arrested and booked into the Jefferson County Detention Facility. Based on a variety of factors, including a prior suicide attempt at the jail, she was placed in the special housing unit (SHU), a jail area for detainees with special medical needs. The facility’s information management system noted that Burgaz had significant needs, including the use of a walker, a history of self-harm, a drug addiction, and a previous suicide attempt at the same jail. The day after booking, a judge ordered her release. After the hearing, Burgaz was temporarily placed in the SHU dayroom awaiting release. While Burgaz was waiting, Deputy Pesapane informed her that she would not be released that evening because of two outstanding warrants from other jurisdictions. The deputy escorted Burgaz to her cell to gather some of her paperwork and then escorted her back to the dayroom. Several minutes later, Burgaz banged on the door attempting to get a deputy’s attention. Deputy Scalise walked by the dayroom about this time but did not look in. Burgaz fashioned a noose from wires and cords of a wall-mounted television and hung herself. She died two days later.

Plaintiff, Burgaz’s estate, sued Deputies Pesapane and Scalise in their individual capacities, alleging they violated Burgaz’s Fourteenth Amendment right to medical care in jail. Plaintiff also sued the Board of County Commissioners and the sheriff based on an entity liability theory for the alleged Fourteenth Amendment violations under 42 USC § 1983. Plaintiff also pleaded two state-law violations. Defendants moved to dismiss under Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 12(b)(6). The court granted the motion and dismissed all claims.

On appeal, plaintiff contended that the district court erred in granting qualified immunity to both individual deputies, maintaining that the deputies were deliberately indifferent to Burgaz’s risk of suicide. Claims based on a jail suicide are considered and treated as claims based on the failure of the jail officials to provide necessary medical care for those in their custody and are assessed for deliberate indifference to serious medical needs. The test for deliberate indifference has an objective and subjective component. For the objective component, the complainant must demonstrate that the deprivation is sufficiently serious to warrant intervention or treatment, and death by suicide satisfies that requirement. The subjective prong requires an official to know of and disregard an excessive risk to a detainee’s health or safety. Here, plaintiff did not plausibly allege that the deputies knew the detainee faced a substantial risk of harm and disregarded that risk by failing to take reasonable measures to abate the risk; it was not obvious that a distressed, physically frail detainee who should have been surveilled constantly would have committed suicide in the dayroom when left alone for 20 minutes. Therefore, plaintiff did not establish deliberate indifference.

Plaintiff also argued that its entity claims against the sheriff were improperly dismissed. because the sheriff violated Burgaz’s rights by tolerating violations of safety practices and failing to train and supervise deputies properly. For a sheriff to be held liable for either a failure to train or supervise claim, an individual officer must have committed a constitutional violation. Here, because neither individual deputy violated Burgaz’s constitutional rights, the claims against the sheriff necessarily failed. Further, plaintiff waived the argument that the combined actions of the deputies and the alleged custom of ignoring safety policy violations caused the harm.

Lastly, because the federal claims were properly dismissed, the dismissal of the state law claims was proper.

The dismissal of the claims was affirmed.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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