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Brianna M. Brooks, Individually and As Successor-In-Interest To Decedent Dennis Brooks; et al v. County of San Joaquin


April 27, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Morrison C. England, Jr. United States District Judge


Through the present lawsuit, Plaintiffs seek redress under both 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law for the suicide of their father, Dennis Brooks, while Brooks was a pretrial detainee at the San Joaquin County Jail (hereinafter "jail"). Named Defendants include San Joaquin County and Sheriff Steve Moore, in his capacity as San Joaquin County Sheriff.

Certain correctional officers who were involved with Brooks' detention at the jail have also been sued, both in their official and individual capacities, including Defendants Kevin Casanelli, Angelo Hurtado-Askins, Mark Hughes, Octavio Samaniego, and Ralph Huggins. Presently before the Court are cross-motions for summary judgment. Defendants request summary judgment as to Plaintiffs' claims in their entirety. Plaintiffs' motion, while also seeking summary judgment, asks in the alternative that summary adjudication be granted as to various individual claims. As set forth below, Defendants' motion will be granted in part, granted in part and Plaintiff's Motion will be denied.


On November 20, 2008, at approximately 10:30 p.m., Decedent Dennis Brooks, a transient, broke into the house of his ex-wife, Brenda Clow-Brooks, after his daughter, Plaintiff Brianna Brooks, refused to allow Dennis Brooks entry to the residence. Brianna Brooks called law enforcement. Stockton police officers thereafter placed Dennis Brooks under arrest and transported him by squad car to the San Joaquin County Jail.

Defendant Kevin Casanelli conducted Dennis Brooks' pre-booking interview upon his arrival at the jail at approximately 12:30 a.m. on the morning of November 21, 2008. Brooks told Casanelli, a correctional officer, that while he was not currently thinking about suicide, he had a history of suicidal ideation and attempted suicide and was, as a result, under psychiatric care.

Plaintiff's Undisputed Fact ("PUF") No. 36. Brooks also told Defendant Casanelli that he was taking Seroquel, a medication known by Casanelli to be a psychotropic in nature. Brooks further admitted to Casanelli that he was under the influence of heroin, and Casanelli recognized Brooks from a prior incarceration at the jail where he was placed in the sheltered housing unit. Id. at 39-40. Sheltered housing is reserved for inmates and/or psychiatric patients who need closer monitoring than that afforded to the general jail population.

As the pre-booking officer, Casanelli input the information provided by Brooks, as well as his own observations, into a computerized custody information system known as CUSINS. Because of his heroin addiction, Brooks was seen by medical staff, where he again denied any current suicidal ideation. Defendants' Undisputed Fact ("DUF") No. 8.

After being seen by medical staff, Brooks' housing classification was assessed by another correctional officer, Defendant Ralph Huggins. Id. at 9. As a classifications officer, Huggins had access to information contained in both the CUSINS database and in the so-called booking process system, or CJIS. Despite Brooks' prior history, Huggins determined that he had no psychological impairment, explaining that a prior history of suicidal ideation is insufficient in and of itself to warrant contacting psychological staff. Huggins Dep., 87:25-89:4, Ex. A to Opening Decl. of Benjamin Nisenbaum. According to Huggins, Brooks denied any ongoing suicidal thoughts, or even being under a psychiatrist's care at the time of his face-to-face classification interview. See id. at 87:2-8.

That information directly contradicted what Brooks told Defendant Casanelli earlier.

Although Huggins indicated he did not know whether Brooks was under the influence of heroin, he assigned him to housing in so-called administrative segregation. DUF at 50-51. Huggins did not request any further psychiatric evaluation. Administrative segregation places inmates who require more supervision than those in the general population into individual cells where they are supposed to be checked at 30-minute intervals. Id. at 8. Huggins claimed he did not know that Brooks had told Casanelli that he was currently under the care of a doctor and taking medication for suicidal thoughts. He admitted that he could have checked the CUSINS database for information to that effect input by Defendant Casanelli but apparently did not do so. Huggins Dep., 90:22-92:21.

Defendants Hughes and Hurtado-Askins were both assigned to the administration segregation unit during the day shift on November 21, 2008. Neither had been involved in Brooks' pre-booking, booking or classification, and neither was aware of Brooks' suicidal history. DUF No. 20, PUF No. 61. Their required 30-minute rounds involved checking on the ad-seg inmates and using a computerized device that recorded the timing of each round. At 1:15 p.m., during one of his rounds, Hughes observed Brooks hanging from the sprinkler head in his cell by a bed sheet. Id. at 61. Hughes radioed for help, entered Brooks' cell and cut his body down with a utility knife. Defendants HurtadoAskins and Samaniego thereafter responded and performed CPR until the nurse and other emergency personnel arrived. Id. at 69-71.

Both Hurtado-Askins and Hughes deny noticing anything unusual about Brooks' demeanor prior to his death. They deny that Brooks expressed any suicidal thoughts, or that he was yelling or banging on his cell door. DUF No. 31-32, 38. One inmate, however, did allegedly write a letter reporting that Brooks had been banging on his cell door and threatening suicide. See DUF No. 50-55. That same inmate, Thomas Welles, claims that Defendant Hughes had heard those threats about an hour prior to Brooks' suicide but did nothing other than to tell Brooks to back away from his cell door. Welles Dep., 26:8-22, 27:16-20. Ex. C to the Opp'n/Reply Decl. of Benjamin Nisenbaum.

The County Coroner determined Brooks' cause of death to be due to asphyxiation, consistent with hanging by the neck. Brooks' suicide was the third in-custody suicide at the jail since 2004. All three suicides were by hanging. PUF Nos. 73-74.

Plaintiffs filed the present wrongful death claim on December 1, 2009. In addition to four causes of action based explicitly on 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (for wrongful death based on Defendants' deliberate indifference to Brooks' serious medical/mental health needs), for loss of familial relations, for so-called Monell liability, and for successor-in-interest civil rights liability), Plaintiffs also allege three claims premised on California law, including wrongful death/negligence in violation of California Code of Civil Procedure §§ 377.60 and 377.61, for failure to provide equal accommodations under California Civil Code § 52.1, and for negligent hiring, retention, supervision and discipline against Defendants County and Moore.

Plaintiffs now move for summary adjudication as to their deliberate indifference, negligence, Monell, and familial association claims. Defendants move for summary judgment as to the case in its entirety. Consequently, Defendants do not seek dismissal of individual claims by way of summary adjudication, although they do seek wholesale dismissal of certain defendants on grounds that no viable claims have been asserted against those defendants.


The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide for summary judgment when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). One of the principal purposes of Rule 56 is to dispose of factually unsupported claims or defenses. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986).

The standard that applies to a motion for summary adjudication is the same as that which applies to a motion for summary judgment. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a), 56(c); Mora v. ChemTronics, 16 F. Supp. 2d. 1192, 1200 (S.D. Cal. 1998).

Under summary judgment practice, the moving party always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of 'the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file together with the affidavits, if any,' which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.

Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. at 323 (quoting Rule 56(c)).

If the moving party meets its initial responsibility, the burden then shifts to the opposing party to establish that a genuine issue as to any material fact actually does exist. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 585-87 (1986); First Nat'l Bank v. Cities Serv. Co., 391 U.S. 253, 288-89 (1968).

In attempting to establish the existence of this factual dispute, the opposing party must tender evidence of specific facts in the form of affidavits, and/or admissible discovery material, in support of its contention that the dispute exists. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e). The opposing party must demonstrate that the fact in contention is material, i.e., a fact that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law, and that the dispute is genuine, i.e., the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 251-52 (1986); Owens v. Local No. 169, Assoc. of W. Pulp and Paper Workers, 971 F.2d 347, 355 (9th Cir. 1987). Stated another way, "before the evidence is left to the jury, there is a preliminary question for the judge, not whether there is literally no evidence, but whether there is any upon which a jury could properly proceed to find a verdict for the party producing it, upon whom the onus of proof is imposed." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251 (quoting Improvement Co. v. Munson, 14 Wall. 442, 448, 20 L. Ed. 867 (1872)).

As the Supreme Court explained, "[w]hen the moving party has carried its burden under Rule 56(c), its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts .... Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no 'genuine issue for trial.'" Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586-87.

In resolving a summary judgment motion, the evidence of the opposing party is to be believed, and all reasonable inferences that may be drawn from the facts placed before the court must be drawn in favor of the opposing party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. Nevertheless, inferences are not drawn out of the air, and it is the opposing party's obligation to produce a factual predicate from which the inference may be drawn. Richards v. Nielsen Freight Lines, 602 F. Supp. 1224, 1244-45 (E.D. Cal. 1985), aff'd, 810 F.2d 898 (9th Cir. 1987).


A. Deliberate Indifference

A pretrial detainee like Dennis Brooks is entitled to be free of cruel and unusual punishment under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 537 n.16 (1979); Simmons v. Navajo County, Ariz., 609 F.3d 1011, 1017 (9th Cir. 2010). The Due Process Clause requires that "persons in custody have the established right to not have officials remain deliberately indifferent to their serious medical needs."

Gibson v. County of Washoe, Nev., 290 F.3d 1175, 1187 (9th Cir. 2002) (quoting Carnell v. Grimm, 74 F.3d 977, 979 (9th Cir. 1996)).*fn1 The deliberate indifference standard has been specifically applied to inmates' suicide prevention. Clouthier v. County of Contra Costa, 591 F.3d 1232, 1241 (9th Cir. 2010).

A pretrial detainee's due process right to adequate care is violated when a jailer fails to promptly and reasonably procure competent medical aid when the pretrial detainee suffers a serious illness or injury while confined. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104-105 (1976). "The indifference to medical needs must be substantial; a constitutional violation is not established by negligence or 'an inadvertent failure to provide adequate medical care.'" Anderson v. County of Kern, 45 F.3d 1310, 1316 (9th Cir. 1995) (quoting Estelle, 429 U.S. at 105-06). Either inaction or action when an official knows of the requisite serious medical need is enough to support liability. Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 842 (1994).

In order to establish a plausible claim for failure to provide medical treatment, Plaintiff must plead sufficient facts to permit the Court to infer that (1) Plaintiff had a "serious medical need," and that (2) individual Defendants were "deliberately indifferent" to that need.

Jett v. Penner, 439 F.3d 1091, 1096 (9th Cir. 2006); Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. at 834, 837. A defendant is not deliberately indifferent unless he was subjectively aware of the serious medical need yet failed to adequately respond. Simmons v. Navajo County, 609 F.3d 1011, 1017-18 (9th Cir. 2010). Consequently, there is both an objective component in determining whether a serious medical need existed and a subjective determination as to whether a prison official has a sufficiently culpable state of mind. Clouthier, 591 F.3d at 1242.

Although the subjective component requires that a defendant be aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and actually draw that inference (Farmer, 511 U.S. at 837), a plaintiff "need not show that a prison official acted or failed to act believing that harm actually would befall on inmate; it is enough that the official acted or failed to act despite his knowledge of a substantial risk of serious harm." Id. at 842. "Whether a prison official had the requisite knowledge of a substantial risk is a question of fact subject to demonstration in the usual ways, including inference from circumstantial evidence, . . . and a fact finder may conclude that a prison official knew of a substantial risk from the very fact that the risk was obvious." Id. (emphasis added) (internal citations omitted); see also Lolli v. County of Orange, 351 F.3d 410, 421 (9th Cir. 2003) ("Much like recklessness in criminal law, deliberate indifference to medical needs may be shown by circumstantial evidence when the facts are sufficient to demonstrate that a defendant actually knew of a risk of harm.").

With this legal framework in mind, we turn to the factual circumstances surrounding the particular Defendants sued by Plaintiffs herein. As enumerated above, Defendant Casanelli knew that Dennis Brooks was under a doctor's care for ongoing suicidal ideation and was using psychotropic drugs because of his issues in that regard. Nonetheless, he failed to notify psychiatric staff, despite the fact that he was required to do when confronted with knowledge that an inmate was taking psychotropic medications. PUF No. 16. This shortcoming was further exacerbated by Casanelli's knowledge that Brooks abused both alcohol and heroin. Indeed, Casanelli's notes appear to indicate that Brooks had last used heroin three hours previously and consumed two fifths of hard liquor on a daily basis. See Medical Screen Questionnaire, Ex. A. to the Opp'n/Reply Decl. of Benjamin Nisenbaum, Bates-stamp p. 457. Although a nurse was contacted for heroin protocol, there is no indication that staff was alerted by Casanelli to the danger implicit in a withdrawal from both heroin and alcohol combined with Brooks' use of psychotropic medication and ongoing suicidal thoughts. This was particularly critical because, as Defendants' own Mental Health Suicide Prevention Plan recognizes, the first mentioned high suicide risks in jail are related to intoxication/substance withdrawal and to the first 24-hour period of confinement. Id. at p. 2242.

That Brooks had a serious medical need given his ongoing suicidal ideation, his treatment for same, and his substance abuse would appear virtually uncontroverted.

Moreover, under these circumstances, there plainly is a triable issue of fact with respect to whether Casanelli knew that Dennis Brooks was an excessive suicide risk, yet failed to take adequate steps to protect him in the face of that risk. Simply entering the information provided by Brooks into the CUSINS database, without taking any further action as required by jail policy, may well be enough for a trier of fact to determine that Casanelli was deliberately indifferent. Consequently, Defendants' motion seeking to defeat any liability on Casanelli's behalf for deliberate indifference must fail. At the same time, however, given Brooks' own denial of any current suicidal ideation, however, the Court also cannot affirmatively find as a matter of law that Casanelli was deliberately indifferent. That determination involves similar issues of fact that a jury must ultimately determine.*fn2

Although the facts with respect to Defendant Huggins' potential liability would appear, on their face, less egregious, they also raise triable issues of fact not amenable to summary judgment. Huggins, as the housing classification officer, had access to the information Casanelli had generated, but still failed to place Brooks into a sheltered housing environment where the constellation of factors placing him at a high risk of suicide could more adequately be monitored. That shortcoming also raises triable issues not suited to summary judgment, particularly since Huggins reviewed Brooks' previous custody history and learned that Brooks had earlier been housed in a safety cell for suicidal ideation. See Huggins Dep., 52:8-16.

Turning to Defendant Mark Hughes, as indicated above, Hughes was one of the officers responsible for periodic cell checks during the hours preceding Brooks' suicide. One inmate, Thomas Welles, claims that Brooks, shortly before his death, was banging on his jail cell and threatening to kill himself. Welles claims that Hughes observed that conduct and simply told Brooks to back away from his cell door and quiet down. See Welles Dep., 22:426:17; 43:20-44:10. Although Welles' testimony in that regard may well be questionable given the apparent failure of any other inmate to notice any suicidal behavior on Brooks' part, it still raises a triable issue as to Hughes' liability that preclude summary judgment. If a jury were to accept Welles' version of events, it could unquestionably find Hughes deliberately indifferent to Brooks' serious medical needs under the circumstances.

Plaintiffs offer no opposition to the remaining named individual defendants in this matter, including Officers Samaniego and Hurtado-Askins, and Sheriff Steve Moore. Samaniego had no contact with Dennis Brooks before responding to his cell after Brooks was found hanging. There similarly is no contention that Hurtado-Askins noticed anything amiss in her observation rounds checking on Brooks and other inmates prior to Brooks' death. Finally, with regard to Sheriff Moore, liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 has be premised on a showing of personal participation in the alleged civil rights violation, since there is no respondeat superior liability under § 1983 for the conduct of the officers Moore was responsible for supervising. See Jones v. Williams, 297 F.3d 930, 934 (9th Cir. 2002). No evidence of any such personal participation on Moore's part has been offered, and, as indicated above, Plaintiffs are clear in not opposing summary judgment as to either Moore, Hurtado-Askins, or Samaniego. See Pls.' Opp'n, 17:23-24 ("Defendants' Motion must be denied as to defendants COUNTY, CASANELLI, HUGGINS, AND HUGHES.")

B. Monell Liability

Deliberate indifference can be inferred through an established practice or custom that violates a prisoner's rights. Lolli v. County of Orange, 351 F.3d 410, 421 (9th Cir. 2003). In order to establish liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a local government's policy or practice must be the "moving force of the constitutional violation."

Polk County v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312, 326 (1981) (citing the seminal case of Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978)). The lack of needed policy can suffice where the lack of adequate training and/or procedures is "so obvious, and the inadequacy so likely to result in the violation of constitutional rights, that the policy makers of the city can reasonably be said to have been deliberately indifferent to the need." City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 390 (1989). In that event, as the Supreme Court notes, "the failure to provide proper training may fairly be said to represent a policy for which [the governmental entity] is responsible, and for which [it] may be liable if it actually causes injury." Id.

Plaintiffs argue that Defendant County has a policy of disregarding an inmate's past housing and level classification in determining their current classification. That policy, according to Plaintiffs, put vulnerable inmates like Dennis Brooks at risk, and did so in this case by Defendant Huggins' failure to consider Brooks' prior placement in sheltered housing. Plaintiffs further argue that the manner in which the jail databases are used, or not used, also constitutes an actionable policy decision. In this case, despite Defendant Casanelli's input of information into the system as a result of his pre-booking interview, much of that information was apparently not accessed by Defendant Huggins in his classification determination. Finally, Plaintiffs contend that the County's failure to discipline Casanelli and Huggins for not notifying psych staff about Brook's suicidal ideation and medication (apparently in violation of County policy) also represent an implicit ratification of those practices.

All these shortcomings, according to Plaintiffs, thus give rise to potential Monell liability against Defendant County. Plaintiffs' correctional practices expert, Joel Goodman, supports that contention,*fn3 and points out that Brooks' suicide is the third successful suicide by hanging in the San Joaquin County Jail since 2004, a factor which may also be significant in suggesting the lack of appropriate safeguards against suicide.

Like Plaintiffs' deliberate indifference allegations as discussed above, Plaintiff's municipal liability claims premised on Monell violations also raise numerous triable issues not amenable to disposition through summary judgment. While Brooks' alleged repeated denial of current suicidal ideation may well figure into the calculus of whether his care was indeed adequate under the circumstances (therefore mitigating against any sort of explicit or implicit policy endangering Brooks), that simply is not a decision this Court can make as a matter of law on the record before it.

C. Qualified Immunity

The individual defendants in this matter argue that even if Brooks' constitutional rights were in fact violated as alleged by Plaintiffs, they are nonetheless entitled to qualified immunity.

"The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known."

Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). In considering a claim of qualified immunity, this Court must determine "whether the facts that a plaintiff has alleged... make out a violation of a constitutional right" and "whether the right at issue was 'clearly established at the time of Defendants' alleged misconduct." Id. at 232. Whether a right is clearly established turns on the "objective legal reasonableness of the action, assessed in light of the legal rules that were clearly established at the time it was taken." Id. at 244 (quoting Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603, 614 (1999).

In arguing for qualified immunity, Defendants first argue that "no reasonable jury could find that the individual defendants were aware any alleged suicidal intent by Brooks such that they were on notice that he intended to commit suicide, and therefore there was no constitutional violation." Defs.' Opening Mem., 12:12-14. As set forth above, the Court has already rejected that contention. Moreover, to the extent that Plaintiffs have raised a triable issue as to deliberate indifference in the face of information concerning Brooks' potential suicidality, Defendants cannot realistically argue that a reasonable deputy would have been unaware of his or her duty to protect Brooks against that risk, or that Brooks' right to such protection was not clearly established.


For all the foregoing reasons, Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 34) is GRANTED as to Defendants Angela Hurtado-Askins, Octavio Samaniego and Steve Moore, but otherwise DENIED as to the remaining Defendants, County of San Joaquin, Kevin Casanelli, Ralph Huggins and Mark Hughes. As set forth above, viable claims as to Casanelli, Huggins and Hughes premised on deliberate indifference preclude summary judgment, and Plaintiffs have similarly stated an actionable claim against the County for so-called Monell liability. Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment as against Casanelli, Huggins, Hughes and the County of San Joaquin, which by definition seek disposition of claims against those defendants in their entirety, must therefore be DENIED.

Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 31) is also DENIED.*fn4 As also set forth above, triable issues remain as to Defendants' liability for deliberate indifference, and while Plaintiffs seek summary adjudication as to other related claims as well, the viability of those claims depends on the same factual considerations which preclude judgment as a matter of law as to Plaintiffs' deliberate indifference claims.*fn5


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