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Castro v. County of Los Angeles

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

May 1, 2015


Argued and Submitted, Pasadena, California December 11, 2014

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Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California. D.C. No. 2:10-05425-DSF. Dale S. Fischer, District Judge, Presiding.


Civil Rights

The panel affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court's judgment, entered following a jury trial, in an action brought under federal and state law by a pretrial detainee who was attacked by another arrestee and suffered serious harm.

Affirming the judgment in favor of plaintiff against the individual defendants, the panel held that defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity because the right to be free from violence at the hands of other inmates was well established and there was sufficient evidence for a jury to find that the officials were deliberately indifferent to a substantial risk of harm to plaintiff. The panel further found that there was sufficient evidence for the punitive damages award.

Reversing the judgment in favor of plaintiff against the County of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, the panel held that plaintiff's claim under Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690-71, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978), was legally viable but insufficiently proven. The panel held that although the entity defendants instituted a formal policy under Monell with regard to designing the jail's sobering cell, there was insufficient evidence that they had actual knowledge of the risk to plaintiff's safety.

The panel affirmed the jury's future-damages award, determining that plaintiff presented sufficient evidence regarding the amount of his past damages from which a jury could reasonably calculate the amount of future damages.

Concurring, Judge Callahan agreed that the judgment of the district court against the individual defendants should be affirmed and the judgment against the entity defendants should be reversed. She wrote separately to explain that she did not think that plaintiff had shown that the design of the West Hollywood Station constituted a policy for purposes of liability under Monell.

Concurring in part and dissenting in part, Judge Graber joined the majority opinion as to the liability of the individual defendants. She dissented from the holding that there was insufficient evidence from which the jury could have concluded that the entity defendants were deliberately indifferent to the risk that plaintiff would be harmed by a fellow inmate.

Melinda Cantrall (argued) and Thomas C. Hurrell, Hurrell Cantrall LLP, Los Angeles, California, for Defendants-Appellants.

John Burton (argued), Law Offices of John Burton, Pasadena, California; Maria Cavalluzzi, Cavalluzzi & Cavalluzzi, Los Angeles, California; and Lawrence Lallande, Lallande Law PLC, Long Beach, California, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Before: Ronald Lee Gilman,[*] Susan P. Graber, and Consuelo M. Callahan, Circuit Judges. Opinion by Judge Gilman; Concurrence by Judge Callahan; Partial Concurrence and Partial Dissent by Judge Graber. CALLAHAN, Circuit Judge, concurring. GRABER, Circuit Judge, concurring in part and dissenting in part.


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GILMAN, Senior Circuit Judge

In October 2009, Jonathan Castro was arrested for being drunk in public. He was housed in a " sobering cell" at the Los Angeles Sheriff's West Hollywood Station where, a few hours after his arrest, he was savagely attacked by another intoxicated arrestee who had been placed in the cell with him. The officer on duty at the jail failed to respond to Castro's pounding on the cell door despite evidence that the officer was well within range to hear the pounding. Castro suffered serious harm, including a broken jaw and traumatic brain injury.

This lawsuit was filed by Castro in the United States District Court for the Central District of California in July 2010. He brought both federal- and state-law claims against the County of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, and a number of John Doe defendants who were later identified as two of his jailers. After a six-day trial, the jury returned a verdict for Castro against both the individual and entity defendants, awarding him over $2.6 million in past and future damages.

The defendants then renewed their joint motion for judgment as a matter of law, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to support the verdict, that the individual defendants were entitled to qualified immunity, and that Castro's theory of liability against the County and the Sheriff's Department (these two entities being hereinafter collectively referred to as the County) was simply untenable. The district court denied the defendants' motion without a written opinion. They now appeal. For the reasons set forth below, we AFFIRM the judgment of the district court against the individual defendants but REVERSE the judgment against the County.


A. Assault on Castro

Castro was arrested late in the evening of October 2, 2009 for public drunkenness. The arresting officers reported that Castro was staggering, bumping into pedestrians, and speaking unintelligibly, so they arrested him " for his safety." He was transported to the West Hollywood Station and placed in a fully walled sobering cell that was stripped of objects with hard edges on which an inmate could hurt himself if he lost his balance. The cell contained only a toilet and a series of mattress pads on the floor. A short time later, Jonathan Gonzalez was arrested after punching out a window at a nightclub. The officers brought Gonzalez to the West Hollywood Station, where he was placed in the same sobering cell that housed Castro. Gonzalez's intake forms indicated that he was " combative" at the time he was placed in the cell.

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Shortly after Gonzalez was placed in the cell, Castro approached the door and pounded on the window in the door for a full minute, attempting to attract an officer's attention. No one responded. A community volunteer at the jail, Gene Schiff, came by approximately 20 minutes later. He noted that Castro appeared to be asleep and that Gonzalez was " inappropriately" touching Castro's thigh, the latter circumstance being in violation of jail policy. Schiff did not enter the cell to investigate. Instead, he reported the contact to the supervising officer, Christopher Solomon. Solomon took no action until he heard loud sounds six minutes later. He rushed to the sobering cell and saw Gonzalez making a violent stomping motion. Solomon immediately opened the door and discovered that Gonzalez was stomping on Castro's head. Solomon ordered Gonzalez to step away from Castro. Seeing that Castro was by then lying unconscious in a pool of blood, Solomon called for medical assistance.

When the paramedics arrived, Castro was still unconscious, in respiratory distress, and turning blue. He was hospitalized for almost a month, then transferred to a long-term care facility, where he remained for four years. He currently suffers from severe memory loss and permanent cognitive impairments. Even after his release from the long-term care facility, Castro remains incapable of performing simple life functions, such as cooking and maintaining hygiene. His family is responsible for his basic care to this day.

B. District court proceedings

After his complaint was filed, Castro substituted Solomon and Solomon's supervisor, Sergeant David Valentine, for the John Doe defendants named in the original complaint. Solomon was the jail's officer on duty on the evening in question and Valentine was the watch sergeant in charge of the jail as a whole. Castro's basic theory of liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 was that both the County and the individual defendants were deliberately in different to the substantial risk of harm created by housing him in the same sobering cell as Gonzalez and by failing to maintain appropriate supervision of the cell. The complaint also set forth a variety of state-law claims, not one of which is raised by any party to this appeal.

The individual defendants moved to dismiss the claims against them on the ground of qualified immunity, but the district court rejected their arguments. It concluded that a jury could find that placing an actively belligerent inmate in an unmonitored cell with Castro constituted deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of harm, in violation of Castro's constitutional rights.

The case proceeded to trial. After Castro rested his case, the defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law on three grounds: (1) insufficient evidence that the design of a jail cell constitutes a policy, practice, or custom by the County that resulted in a constitutional violation; (2) insufficient evidence that a reasonable officer would have known that housing Castro and Gonzalez together was a violation of Castro's constitutional rights; and (3) insufficient evidence for the jury to award punitive damages. The district court denied the motion in its entirety. Five days later, the jury returned a verdict for Castro on all counts and awarded him $2,605,632.02 in damages. Based on the jury's findings, the parties later stipulated to $840,000 in attorney fees, $12,000 in punitive damages against Valentine, and $6,000 in punitive damages against Solomon.

After trial, the defendants timely filed a renewed motion for judgment as a matter

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of law. The trial court denied the renewed motion without issuing a written opinion. This timely appeal followed.


A. Standard of review

We review de novo the district court's denial of a motion for judgment as a matter of law. Hangarter v. Provident Life & Accident Ins. Co., 373 F.3d 998, 1005 (9th Cir. 2004). A renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law is properly granted only " if the evidence, construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, permits only one reasonable conclusion, and that conclusion is contrary to the jury's verdict." Pavao v. Pagay, 307 F.3d 915, 918 (9th Cir. 2002). " A jury's verdict must be upheld if it is supported by substantial evidence, which is evidence adequate to support the jury's conclusion, even if it is also possible to draw a contrary conclusion." Id.

In making this determination, the court must not weigh the evidence, but should simply ask whether the plaintiff has presented sufficient evidence to support the jury's conclusion. Johnson v. Paradise Valley Unified Sch. Dist., 251 F.3d 1222, 1227-28 (9th Cir. 2001). Although the court must review the entire evidentiary record, it must view all the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, draw all reasonable inferences in the favor of the nonmover, and disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not required to believe. Id. at 1227.

The defendants raise a number of issues on appeal, ranging from discrete legal questions to disputed matters of evidence. We first address the arguments raised by the individual defendants, then move on to those presented by the County.

B. Neither Solomon nor Valentine is entitled to qualified immunity

Both individual defendants--Solomon and Valentine--argue that the judgment against them should be reversed because they are entitled to qualified immunity. The doctrine of qualified immunity shields government officials from civil liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 if " their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982). " Qualified immunity balances two important interests--the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably." Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231, 129 S.Ct. 808, 172 L.Ed.2d 565 (2009).

To determine whether an officer is entitled to qualified immunity, a court must evaluate two independent prongs: (1) whether the officer's conduct violated a constitutional right, and (2) whether that right was clearly established at the time of the incident. Id ...

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