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White v. Henderson County

United States District Court, W.D. Tennessee, Eastern Division

December 29, 2017

CLIFFORD ROBERT WHITE, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
HENDERSON COUNTY, TENNESSEE, et al.; Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTIONS TO DISMISS

          S. THOMAS ANDERSON CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court are Defendants Western Mental Health Institute and Debora Murphy, M.D.'s Motions to Dismiss (ECF Nos. 55 & 69) filed on September 20, 2017, and October 12, 2017, respectively. Plaintiff Clifford Robert White does not oppose the dismissal without prejudice of Western Mental Health Institute for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Plaintiff has responded in opposition to DeBora Murphy, M.D.'s Motion to Dismiss for failure to state a claim, and Dr. Murphy has filed a reply.[1] For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' Motions to Dismiss are GRANTED.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed his original Complaint on February 3, 2016, alleging claims for federal civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law claims sounding in negligence. The original Complaint alleged that Plaintiff's decedent Gina Lenore White (“Ms. White”) was arrested on or about January 1, 2015, and taken to the Henderson County Criminal Justice Center (“the jail”). In the weeks after her arrest, Ms. White experienced a dramatic decline in her health. By early February 2015, Ms. White was so ill she was no longer able to meet her own physical needs and could not control her bodily functions. The Complaint alleged that despite obvious signs Ms. White urgently needed medical care, Defendants failed to take any action to meet her serious health needs. Ms. White died in custody on February 7, 2015. Based on the facts alleged, the original Complaint asserted the following claims against Defendants under § 1983 and state law: denial of medical care; wrongful death; negligent hiring, training, and supervision; gross negligence, intentional conduct, and willful, reckless, and wanton misconduct; and liability under the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act (“TGTLA”).

         On March 21, 2016, Defendants Henderson County, Tennessee; Sheriff Brian Duke; Anthony Woodfin; Jackie Bausman; and Eric Hatchett (collectively “the Henderson County Defendants”) filed a motion for partial dismissal. One year later on March 24, 2017, this case was transferred to the undersigned for all further proceedings. On April 21, 2017, the Court granted in part and denied in part the Henderson County Defendants' motion for partial dismissal. Based on Plaintiff's concessions, the Court dismissed his claims against the Henderson County Sheriff's Department, the official capacity claims against the individual employees of Henderson County, and any claim for violation of the Tennessee Constitution. The Court accepted supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claims under the TGTLA.

         Following the Court's ruling on their motion for partial dismissal, the Henderson County Defendants filed their Answer (ECF No. 34) to the original Complaint on May 8, 2017, and then a First Amended Answer (ECF No. 36) on May 26, 2017.[2] The Henderson County Defendants' responsive pleadings alleged the comparative fault of four non-parties: Advanced Correctional Healthcare, Inc.; Derinda Lucken, LPN; Western Mental Health Institute (“WMHI”); and DeBora Murphy, M.D. (“Dr. Murphy”). In response to the Henderson County Defendants' Answer and First Amended Answer, Plaintiff filed an unopposed motion to amend his initial Complaint for the purpose of adding these non-parties as new Defendants. The Court granted Plaintiff leave to amend, and Plaintiff filed his First Amended Complaint (ECF No. 48) on August 4, 2017.

         According to the First Amended Complaint, WMHI is a division of the state of Tennessee or the Tennessee Department of Mental Health, and Dr. Murphy, a psychiatrist, was at all times relevant an employee of WMHI. The First Amended Complaint restates the same allegations against the Henderson County Defendants found in the original Complaint, describing the Henderson County Defendants' treatment of Ms. White between January 29, 2015, and her death on February 7, 2015. See First Am. Compl. ¶ 16-45. The First Amended Complaint now alleges that some time after Ms. White's arrest on January 1, 2015, Henderson County discovered that Ms. White had previously received treatment for psychosis, bipolar disorder, and anxiety. Id. ¶ 17. So jail officials made the decision to send Ms. White to WMHI for evaluation and treatment. Id. ¶ 10. Ms. White remained at WMHI under Dr. Murphy's care from January 10, 2015, to January 29, 2015. Id.

         Dr. Murphy diagnosed Ms. White with bipolar mania with psychotic features, narcissistic personality disorder, and hypertension/high blood pressure. Id. ¶ 19. Dr. Murphy prescribed a series of medications, including daily doses of Lithium, Amitriptyline, Cogentin Clondine, Prolixim, and Hydrochlorothiazide. Id. Upon Ms. White's release from WMHI and return to the jail, Dr. Murphy instructed the Henderson County Defendants to continue Ms. White's course of medications and to provide follow up mental health treatment. Id. The First Amended Complaint alleges that the Henderson County Defendants failed to follow Dr. Murphy's discharge instructions and failed to administer Ms. White's medications as prescribed by Dr. Murphy. Id. ¶ 21. Specifically, the Henderson County Defendants failed to provide Ms. White with all of her prescribed doses of Lithium and failed to insure that she took her medication. Id. ¶ 24. The Henderson County Defendants waited five days to begin giving Ms. White Lithium and allowed other inmates to administer Ms. White's medications to her. Id. ¶¶ 21, 24. Dr. Murphy's discharge instructions also outlined the potential symptoms of harmful drug reactions or an overdose of Lithium, symptoms which Ms. White experienced after her return to the jail. Id. ¶ 26. Based on a blood test conducted on February 5, 2015, two days before Ms. White's death, Ms. White had nearly three times the concentration of Lithium in her blood that she had had on January 27, 2015, the day she was discharged from WMHI. Id. ¶ 44.

         The First Amended Complaint alleges three separate theories of fault against WMHI and Dr. Murphy. Plaintiff first alleges that both Defendants failed to provide Ms. White with appropriate medical treatment during her stay at WMHI. Id. ¶ 67. Second, WMHI and Dr. Murphy failed to provide adequate discharge instructions for Ms. White's ongoing care back at the Henderson County Correctional Center. This includes inadequate instructions on how jail officials were to determine whether Ms. White needed additional mental health treatment. Id. Plaintiff describes Dr. Murphy's discharge instructions as “medically and professionally negligent, ” “negligently prepared, ” and otherwise “below the applicable standard of care.” Id. ¶ 68. WMHI and Dr. Murphy should have known that other healthcare providers would rely on Dr. Murphy's discharge instructions to determine whether Ms. White should receive additional mental health treatment. Id. And as his third theory of WMHI and Dr. Murphy's liability, Plaintiff alleges that in light of the risks associated with taking the medication Lithium, Dr. Murphy had an ongoing duty to monitor Ms. White for adverse drug reactions or interactions. Id. ¶ 69. Dr. Murphy never followed up to assess Ms. White's progress once she returned to the jail. Id. ¶ 68. Plaintiff alleges that these acts and omissions of WMHI and Dr. Murphy constituted negligent and reckless deviation from the accepted standard of care. Id. ¶ 70.

         In its Motion to Dismiss, WMHI argues that as an agency of the state of Tennessee, WMHI has Eleventh Amendment immunity from any claim. Tennessee has not waived its sovereign immunity, and Congress has not acted to abrogate Tennessee's sovereign immunity. Additionally, WMHI argues that it is not a “person” within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and therefore Plaintiff's section 1983 claims against WMHI will not lie. The Court should conclude then that it lacks subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claims against WMHI. In response to WMHI's Motion to Dismiss, Plaintiff acknowledges that as an agency of the State of Tennessee, WMHI has sovereign immunity from any claim under section 1983. Plaintiff further concedes that the Tennessee Claims Commission has exclusive jurisdiction over his claims against WMHI. Even though this Court lacks jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claims against WMHI, Plaintiff requests that the Court dismiss his claims against WMHI without prejudice to Plaintiff's right to pursue the claims before the Tennessee Claims Commission. Plaintiff contests any argument that WMHI's sovereign immunity extends to Dr. Murphy.

         Dr. Murphy has filed a separate Motion to Dismiss, arguing that the First Amended Complaint fails to state a section 1983 claim against her. According to Dr. Murphy, Plaintiff fails to allege that Dr. Murphy was deliberately indifferent to Ms. White's serious medical needs. The First Amended Complaint alleges that Plaintiff's decedent received care from Dr. Murphy but states in conclusory fashion that Dr. Murphy's care was “inappropriate.” This is insufficient to state a claim for deliberate indifference. Once Ms. White was returned to the custody of Henderson County, Dr. Murphy had no opportunity to observe Ms. White or assess her medical needs and therefore could not have been deliberately indifferent to Ms. White's condition. Dr. Murphy also argues that the First Amended Complaint fails to allege that any negligence on Dr. Murphy's part was the proximate cause of Ms. White's death. Plaintiff's theory is that Dr. Murphy's failure to provide adequate discharge instructions and that her failure to follow up with Henderson County officials were causes of Ms. White's death. However, there is no allegation that Dr. Murphy had reason to know that Henderson County officials would not follow her discharge instructions or that follow-up contact with Henderson County officials would have resulted in improved care for Ms. White. Dr. Murphy goes on to argue that she is entitled to absolute and qualified immunity and that the Court should decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims against her.

         Plaintiff has filed a brief responding in opposition to Dr. Murphy's Motion to Dismiss. Under Local Rule of Court 12.1(b), “a party opposing a motion to dismiss must file a response within 28 days after the motion is served.” Local R. 12.1(b). Dr. Murphy filed her Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss on October 12, 2017, and served a copy of her Motion on counsel for Plaintiff through CM-ECF. Plaintiff thus had 28 days from October 12, 2017, in which to respond, making his brief due November 9, 2017. Plaintiff did not file his response until November 27, 2017. Plaintiff has not explained why his brief was over two weeks late, and Dr. Murphy has not contested the late filing of the brief. Despite the fact that Plaintiff did not timely respond, the Court will consider the merits of Plaintiff's belated arguments.

         Plaintiff contends that Dr. Murphy's Motion to Dismiss is premature because Dr. Murphy's arguments assume facts which have not yet been established. Plaintiff first argues that Dr. Murphy has not shown that she was an employee of the State of Tennessee. Without an evidentiary hearing to introduce proof of this fact, Dr. Murphy is not entitled to absolute immunity as a state employee. As for qualified immunity, Dr. Murphy likewise must make an evidentiary showing that her “official conduct” did not cause a violation of Ms. White's constitutional rights. Plaintiff has attached to his response a copy of Dr. Murphy's discharge letter, advising that Ms. White might feign impairment by “employing dramatic means, such as suicidal threats, suicidal gestures, behavioral outbursts, report of hallucinations, or puzzling complaints of medical problems . . . .” Plaintiff argues that Dr. Murphy's opinion taken together with her failure to follow-up with jail officials about Ms. White's condition may have contributed to the jail's denial of appropriate medical care for Ms. White. Plaintiff also cites the medical opinion of Dr. Richard M. Sobel, an opinion witness retained by the Henderson County Defendants. Plaintiff has attached to his brief a copy of Dr. Sobel's written report in which Dr. Sobel opines that Dr. Murphy's letter had the effect of discouraging jail officials from returning Ms. White to WMHI for additional mental health treatment. Plaintiff argues then that issues of fact remain about whether Dr. Murphy is entitled to qualified immunity. Finally, Plaintiff argues that if the Court does dismiss Dr. Murphy as a party to the suit, then the Court should as a matter of fairness preclude the Henderson County Defendants from alleging Dr. Murphy's comparative fault.

         Dr. Murphy has filed a reply. Dr. Murphy argues that under Tennessee law she is entitled to absolute immunity as a state employee. There is no need to hold an evidentiary hearing to establish the fact that Dr. Murphy was a state employee. The fact of her employment is undisputed and is alleged multiple times in the Amended Complaint. And the Court can decide Dr. Murphy's qualified immunity at the pleadings stage, Plaintiff's argument to the contrary notwithstanding. Plaintiff's response focuses on Dr. Murphy's discharge letter and failure to follow-up, not on the actual care Dr. Murphy provided to Ms. White while she was a patient at WMHI. And yet the Amended Complaint alleges that the Henderson County Defendants ignored Dr. Murphy's discharge letter. There is no allegation then that Dr. Murphy's letter was the proximate cause of the alleged denial of medical care at the jail. Even if Plaintiff could show that the Henderson County Defendants relied on the discharge letter, Dr. Sobel's opinion only shows that Dr. Murphy's remarks were negligent, not deliberately indifferent. The Amended Complaint does not allege that Dr. Murphy had reason to know of Ms. White's serious health needs once she returned to the jail. For these reasons ...


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