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McHone v. Far Northern Regional Center

United States District Court, N.D. California

January 5, 2015

EDWARD McHONE, et al., Plaintiffs,


ELIZABETH D. LAPORTE, Chief Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiffs Shirley McHone and Edward McHone brought this case pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, regarding the tragic wrongful death of their developmentally disabled son. Defendant North Bay Developmental Disabilities Services is a non-profit corporation that contracts with the California Department of Developmental Services to provide services and support to individuals diagnosed with a developmental disability in the counties of Napa, Solano and Sonoma. First Amended Complaint ("FAC") ¶ 6. Defendant Far Northern Regional Center is a corporation that contracts with the California Department of Developmental Services to provide services and support to individuals with a developmental disability in the counties of Butte, Glenn, Lassen, Modoc, Plumas, Tehama, Shasta and Siskiyou. FAC ¶ 7. Defendant Puckett Residential Services is a corporation that operates eight residential care facilities, including Baker House, where Plaintiffs' son was living. FAC ¶ 8.

Each Defendant moved to dismiss Plaintiffs' complaint against it. The parties fully briefed the motions and the Court held a hearing on December 16, 2013. For the reasons stated at the hearing and in this Order, the motions to dismiss are granted without leave to amend.

Allegations from the complaint

Plaintiffs' son, James Travis McHone ("Travis") was born with Prader-Willis Syndrome ("PWS"), a complex genetic condition that is the most common known genetic cause of life-threatening obesity in children. FAC ¶ 20. PWS causes low muscle tone, short stature, incomplete sexual development and a chronic feeling of hunger that, coupled with a low metabolism, leads to excessive eating and life-threatening obesity. FAC ¶ 20. The average IQ for individuals suffering from PWS is 70, but even those with normal IQs almost all have learning issues. FAC ¶ 20. Social and motor deficits also exist. FAC ¶ 20. Due to his illness, Travis required constant supervision for his own safety. FAC ¶ 20. There is no known cure for PWS. FAC ¶ 20.

The Lanterman Act, California Welfare & Institutions Code section 4500, et seq., sets forth the statutory scheme for providing services to people with developmental disabilities, including PWS. FAC ¶ 21. The California Department of Developmental Services has jurisdiction over the execution of laws relating to the care, treatment and custody of developmentally disabled persons. FAC ¶ 21 (citing Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code§ 4416). Under the Act, the state undertakes the obligation to provide "an array of services and supports... to meet the needs and choices of the developmentally disabled. FAC ¶ 22 (quoting Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code§ 4501). To fulfill that obligation, the law has established regional centers to conduct a number of specified activities for the developmentally disabled. FAC ¶ 22 (citing Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code§ 4648(a)). California Welfare and Institutions Code section 4620(b) states:

The Legislature finds that the service provided to individuals and their families by regional centers is of such a special and unique nature that it cannot be satisfactorily provided by state agencies. Therefore, private nonprofit community agencies shall be utilized by the state for the purpose of operating regional centers.

A regional center may purchase services "pursuant to a vendorization or a contract" to provide services and support. FAC ¶ 22 (quoting Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code§ 4648(a)(1) & (3)). Vendorization or contracting is the "process for identification, selection and utilization of service vendors or contractors, based on the qualifications and other requirements necessary in order to provide the service." FAC ¶ 22 (quoting Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code§ 4648(a)(3)(A)). Regional centers are responsible for assessing developmentally disabled persons and on an individualized basis, selecting and providing services to meet such needs, including selecting the vendors and ensuring that the services provided are in compliance with their contracts and applicable state laws and regulations. FAC ¶ 22.

A network of twenty-one regional centers is responsible for determining eligibility, assessing needs and coordinating and delivering direct services to individuals with developmental disabilities within a defined geographic area. FAC ¶ 23 (citing Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code§ 4620). The California Department of Developmental Services allocates funds to the centers for operations and the purchasing of services, including funding to purchase community-based services and supports. FAC ¶ 23 (citing Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code §§ 4620, 4621, 4787). The specific rights to services of persons with developmental disabilities and the corresponding obligations of the state are determined through an individual program plan ("IPP") procedure. FAC ¶ 24 (citing Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code §§ 4646-4648). The applicable regulations specify the program design and staffing ratios that service level 1 through 4 facilities must possess in order to be approved to provide direct supervision and special services. FAC ¶ 25 (citing Cal. Code Regs., Tit. 17, §§ 56002, subds. (a)(14), (44) & (48), 56004-56005).

Plaintiff.alleges that facilities providing service level 1 (the most minimal services) through level 4 (for individuals with sever ¶ deficits in self-care or other behaviors) must be vendorized by a regional center. FAC ¶ 25; see also Cal. Code Regs., tit. 17, § 56004, subd. (b). One requirement of the vendor application is to confirm that the facility is capable of providing, and is certified or licensed to perform, the services it seeks to provide. FAC ¶ 25; Cal. Code Regs., tit. 17, § 54310.

Travis was originally assigned to the San Diego Regional Center, but was transferred to Defendant North Bay Development Disabilities Services, and was in the process of being transferred to Defendant Far Northern Regional Center at the time that he resided in Baker House. FAC ¶ 26. Far Northern is responsible for Baker House, which is owned by Defendant Puckett. FAC ¶ ¶ 26, 29. Both regional centers are governed by the Lanterman.Act. FAC ¶ 27. Baker House is a Level 4 provider. FAC ¶ 27.

When Travis was under the supervision of the San Diego Regional Center, he had an IPP, as required by the Lanterman Act. FAC ¶ 34. The IPP noted that: "Travis requires 24-hour supervision and someone needs to be present during waking hours for his personal, health and safety, " and that: "Travis has limited safety awareness skills." FAC ¶ 34. In May 2012, he was put on an involuntary psychiatric hold and was transported by the police to San Diego County Mental Health. FAC ¶ 34. Staff at the San Diego facility called the police because while he was out in the community with staff, Travis damaged several cars. FAC ¶ 34.

A few months later, in August 2012, a Client Development Evaluation Report stated that Travis required someone nearby during waking hours to prevent injury or harm in all settings, and that his self-injurious behavior caused injury requiring first aid or medical care at least once per week. FAC ¶ 35. Other contemporaneous records indicate that Travis previously displayed physical aggression and had left the premises without permission. FAC ¶ 35.

A Consumer Placement Referral prepared by the San Diego Regional Center in 2012 states that "Travis needs to be reminded to look both ways when crossing. At times, he can be forgetful and will get in front of cars." FAC ¶ 36. Plaintiff-alleges that within Defendant Puckett's records, the section containing this statement has a handwritten note indicating that someone specifically read the section and noted it as important. FAC ¶ 36.

On October 23, 2013, Baker House and North Bay entered into an Admission Agreement in which Baker House agreed to provide "24-hour personal care, protection, supervision, assistance, and guidance in a safe and suitable facility." FAC ¶ 28. On October 25, 2013, Travis was admitted to Baker House, which at the relevant time had six residents. FAC ¶ 29. North Bay and Far Northern employees worked together to ensure Travis' placement at Baker House through a courtesy vendorization placement, including a placement packet from North Bay that contained relevant information about Travis for his placement at Baker House. FAC ¶ 30. On October 23, 2013, a Baker House representative prepared a memo to all staff regarding the care of Travis, but Plaintiff alleges that the memo revealed only some but not all pertinent information about Travis and his needs to ensure his personal safety. FAC ¶ 31. Plaintiff alleges that the memo failed to reveal that Travis will strike others if he feels threatened and will struggle to break free if several people attempt to restrain him. FAC ¶ 31.

Baker House Administrator Defendant Gates assured Plaintiffs that Travis would be under constant supervision and that the group home door and window alarms would stay on at all times. FAC ¶ 33. Strong male staff members had been hired to work rotating shifts to provide required supervision for Travis. FAC ¶ 33.

On October 26, 2013, Travis' father informed Baker House staff that Travis would elope if angry or hungry, and that he would eat out of garbage. FAC ¶ 37. Plaintiff alleges that records indicate that Baker House noted that if Travis was mad or hungry, "... we go outside with him or not let him go if he's in some mood." FAC ¶ 37. Within the first week of arriving at Baker House, Travis was reacting negatively to his new environment and had been physically aggressive on at least five occasions, including pushing, hitting, kicking, and scratching staff. FAC ¶ 38. He was also verbally abusive towards staff and peers. FAC ¶ 38.

On November 4, 2013, Travis cussed at and attempted to hit a female staff member. FAC ¶ 40. A male staff member switched places with the female staff member and Travis attempted to kick the male staff member. FAC ¶ 40. It took two hours for Travis to calm down. FAC ¶ 40.

On the same day, at 10:00 p.m., Travis left his room and walked out the front door of Baker House in front of a staff member and into the street. FAC ¶ 41. A female staff member shadowed Travis, but lost him when a vehicle drove by with high beams on, and the staff member tried to flag the vehicle down. FAC ¶ 41. The staff member called 911, and searched for Travis by car, but did not find him. FAC ¶ 41. Travis returned on his own two hours later. FAC ¶ 41. After this incident, Plaintiffs offered to fund the purchase of a fence to enclose Baker House as a secondary measure of safety. FAC, ¶ 41. Puckett, through its employee Gates, refused. FAC ¶ 41.

On November 5, 2013, Gates met with a male staff member, Travis and Plaintiffs. FCA ¶ 42. Gates warned Travis that she had permission: "to do whatever it takes to keep you and other people safe... I am willing to hear your side of it but the minute you get aggressive, I'm not going to negotiate for you with the staff. We have a zero tolerance on hurting people... You are an adult, if you hit them they can call the police." FAC ¶ 42.

On November 7, 2013, Puckett instructed staff not to engage Travis or, let him get close enough to touch. FAC ¶ 43. Two staff members were injured and the Baker House had double staffing with two awake staff members due to Travis' unpredictability in ...

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