Disputed facts exists due to fellow inmate affidavits in jail death case against officers precluding summary judgment

Kitchen v. Dallas County, Texas, et al,  No. 13-10545 (5th Cir. July 17, 2014)

This is an excessive force case where the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit reversed a summary judgment dismissing several detention officers and County after the death of an inmate.

Kitchen was a pretrial detainee who was undergoing psychiatric evaluation and designated as suicidal. Detention officers observed him beating his head on the wall and screaming at officers attending to another detainee. Given his prior attacks on detention personnel and medical staff, and his repeated head banging, officers attempted to extract him from his cell in order to place him in restraints. During that time a violent altercation began and Kitchen was taken down to the floor. Using pepper spray, the detention officers subdued Kitchen and moved him out of the cell onto the floor of the hallway and restrained. The affidavits of four inmates stated several officers continued to kick, choke, and stomp on Kitchen after being restrained. While still lying on the floor Kitchen became unresponsive, stopped breathing, and died. The trial court dismissed all claims, but did so in a manner based on the medical merits as opposed to any qualified immunity or disputed facts. Kitchen’s widow appealed.

The court first emphasized that it was taking a fair reading of the inmate affidavits and that any credibility aspects must be evaluated by a jury. Holding the affidavits up to the stated legal standards, the court held the affidavits created a dispute of material fact as to whether the force utilized was excessive. As a result, the dismissal of the individual officers was reversed. However, the court gave very specific instructions to the trial court to perform including evaluating the claims of qualified immunity and to do so on an individual basis for each defendant separately. Additionally, the trial court must consider the question of bystander liability which can be established in situations where someone “(1) knows that a fellow officer is violating an individual’s constitutional rights; (2) has a reasonable opportunity to prevent the harm; and (3) chooses not to act.” However, the court held the issue of deliberate indifference to medical treatment cannot be established as “even if the detention officers did not choose the optimal means of facilitating the deceased’s access to medical care, this is insufficient to demonstrate deliberate indifference to the deceased’s need for such care.” Finally, the court affirmed the dismissal of the County holding that the record does not establish any alleged constitutional violation could have been caused by a lack of training. No specialized training is required for extraction from a jail cell of a mentally ill individual and “showing merely that additional training would have been helpful in making difficult decisions does not establish municipal liability.”

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel: Justices DAVIS, ELROD, and COSTA. Opinion by Justice Davis. The attorney listed for Kitchen is John K. Kennedy. The attorney listed for the County defendants is  Dolena Tutt Westergard.