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Ward v. County of Mendocino

United States District Court, N.D. California

July 14, 2017

MARGARET WARD, et al., Plaintiffs,
THE COUNTY OF MENDOCINO, et al., Defendants.


          PHYLLIS J. HAMILTON United States District Judge

         The motion of defendant Dr. Marvin Trotter to dismiss the constitutional claim asserted against him in the above-entitled action came on for hearing before this court on July 12, 2017. Plaintiffs appeared by their counsel Nathaniel Leeds, and defendant appeared by his counsel Chad Couchot. Having read the parties' papers and carefully considered their arguments and the relevant legal authority, the court hereby GRANTS the motion as follows.


         This is a case brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by the survivors of Earl Ward, a 77-year-old man who was taken into custody by the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department following what appears to have been a complaint of domestic abuse by his wife, Margaret Ward. See First Amended Complaint (“FAC”) ¶ 1. He was arrested on March 20, 2016, and held in custody at the Mendocino County Jail, where he fell in his cell on April 16, 2016, and suffered numerous injuries. FAC ¶¶ 1, 43. He died on May 30, 2016, following surgery for his injuries. FAC ¶¶ 1, 44.

         Prior to his arrest, Mr. Ward allegedly suffered from dementia, “which made him prone to confusion and uncontrollable rages.” FAC ¶ 1. While in custody, he allegedly displayed symptoms of confusion, delusion, agitation, and paranoia, FAC ¶¶ 25-27, which plaintiffs claim was immediately evident to jail staff. On March 21, 2016, he became agitated, hitting the window in his cell and saying he wanted to die, and later repeatedly pushing on the door of his locked cell. FAC ¶ 25. He was subsequently transferred to a "safety cell." FAC ¶ 25. On March 22, 2016, he was observed standing at the door smiling, and again trying to push out; three hours later he was observed staring at the wall, holding a drinking cup on his head; and an hour later he was observed by a jail staffer to have a "disorganized thought process." FAC ¶ 27.

         On March 24, 2016, a social worker from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) medical services observed that Mr. Ward was unable to articulate why he had been arrested. FAC ¶ 28. On March 28, 2016, jail staff noted that he refused to take his medications. FAC ¶ 29. That same day, a social worker from VA medical services again spoke with Mr. Ward and noted that Mr. Ward indicated he was in Chicago. FAC ¶ 30. On April 2, 2016, a jail deputy observed Mr. Ward standing on his bunk trying to push the window open. FAC ¶ 31. Later that day, another deputy observed Mr. Ward standing on his bunk and falling backwards, possibly hitting his head. FAC ¶ 32.

         On April 3, 2016, at 3:40 a.m., after jail personnel observed that Mr. Ward had a bruise on his head with dried blood, he was taken to the Ukiah Valley Medical Center ("UVMC"), FAC ¶ 34, where he was seen in the Emergency Room (“ER”). Medical center staff noted that Mr. Ward remained asleep during the exam, and stated that he was not oriented to person, place, or time. FAC ¶ 34. The deputies stated that it was the first time he had slept since March 20, 2016. FAC ¶ 34. Blood tests showed he had an elevated blood urea nitrogen (BUN), which plaintiffs assert is a sign of dehydration and renal failure. FAC ¶ 35.

         That same day (April 3, 2016), Dr. Trotter discharged Mr. Ward from the ER, reporting that he "does have dementia, recently residing in jail, likely had an acute episode of delirium, probably due to lack of sleep, as it is reported he has not slept for a week and a half before presenting to the emergency room. He was on his bunk when he dozed off and fell." FAC ¶ 36. Plaintiffs claim that upon his return to the jail, Mr. Ward continued to exhibit agitation, confusion, and delusion, and repeatedly attempted to climb out of a fixed window. FAC ¶ 39. Plaintiffs allege that defendants "did not undertake adequate fall-risk protection efforts after observing Mr. Ward's attempts to climb within this cell on April 6th." FAC ¶ 41.

         On April 16, 2016, thirteen days after his visit to the ER, Mr. Ward was discovered lying on the floor of his cell and was taken in for further medical evaluation, which revealed that he had multiple vertebral fractures and broken ribs, internal bleeding, a partially collapsed lung, and acute kidney failure. FAC ¶ 43. Mr. Ward's orthopedic injuries required surgery, which plaintiffs claim led to complications and ultimately to his death on May 30, 2016. FAC ¶ 44.

         Plaintiffs Margaret Ward (in her personal capacity, and as the executor of Mr. Ward's estate), Kevin Ward, and Ina Ward (surviving heir of Jeff Ward, deceased) filed the original complaint in this action on February 22, 2017, and filed the FAC on March 23, 2017. Named as defendants are the County of Mendocino; Thomas Allman, the Sheriff of Mendocino County and two Sheriff's deputies, Michael Grant and Lorrie Knapp; California Forensic Medical Group, Inc. ("CFMG" - a company that provides and manages medical services in jails, including the Mendocino County Jail); and two physicians, Dr. Michael Medvin and Dr. Trotter.

         Plaintiffs assert (1) a "personal capacity" Fourteenth Amendment claim of deprivation of life without due process of law, deliberate indifference to serious medical needs, and denial of medical care (against Sheriff Allman, Deputies Grant and Knapp, CFMG, Dr. Medvin, and Dr. Trotter); (2) a "supervisory liability" Fourteenth Amendment claim (against Sheriff Allman); (3) an "elder abuse" claim under California law (against the County, Sheriff Allman, Deputies Grant and Knapp, and CFMG); and (4) a claim of medical negligence and wrongful death (against CFMG, Dr. Medvin, and Dr. Trotter).

         Dr. Trotter now seeks an order dismissing the Fourteenth Amendment “deliberate indifference” claim asserted against him, for failure to state a claim.


         A. Legal Standard

         A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) tests for the legal sufficiency of the claims alleged in the complaint. Ileto v. Glock, 349 F.3d 1191, 1199-1200 (9th Cir. 2003). Under the minimal notice pleading requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8, which requires that a complaint include a "short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, " Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), a complaint may be dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6) if the plaintiff fails to state a cognizable legal theory, or has not alleged sufficient facts to support a cognizable legal theory. Somers v. Apple, Inc., 729 F.3d 953, 959 (9th Cir. 2013).

         While the court is to accept as true all the factual allegations in the complaint, legally conclusory statements, not supported by actual factual allegations, need not be accepted. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-79 (2009); see also In re Gilead Scis. Secs. Litig., 536 F.3d 1049, 1055 (9th Cir. 2008). The complaint must proffer sufficient facts to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 558-59 (2007) (citations and quotations omitted). A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citation omitted).

         "[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged - but it has not 'show[n]' - 'that the pleader is entitled to relief.'" Id. at 679. Where dismissal is warranted, it is generally without prejudice, unless it is clear the complaint cannot be saved by any amendment. Sparling v. Daou, 411 F.3d 1006, 1013 (9th Cir. 2005).

         B. Defendant's Motion

         Dr. Trotter argues that the FAC fails to state facts sufficient to state a Fourteenth Amendment claim of deliberate indifference to Mr. Ward's serious medical needs, and fails to establish that he acted under color of state law in treating Mr. Ward.

         Section 1983 "provides a cause of action for the 'deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws' of the United States." Wilder v. Virginia Hosp. Ass'n, 496 U.S. 498, 508 (1990) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1983). Section 1983 is not itself a source of substantive rights, but merely provides a method for vindicating federal rights elsewhere conferred. See Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 393-94 (1989).

         To state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege that a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States was violated and that the alleged violation was committed by a person acting under the color of state law. See West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988); Ketchum v. Alameda County, 811 F.2d 1243, 1245 (9th Cir. 1987). The plaintiff must also allege facts showing that “the defendant's conduct was the actionable cause of the claimed injury;” that is, the plaintiff must establish both causation-in-fact and proximate causation. See Harper v. City of L.A., 533 F.3d 1010, 1026 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing Van Ort v. Estate of Stanewich, 92 F.3d 831, 837 (9th Cir. 1996)).

         1. Allegations of deliberate indifference

         Dr. Trotter argues that plaintiffs have not alleged facts sufficient to state a claim for deliberate indifference to serious medical needs. He contends that absent a showing of the requisite culpability, plaintiffs' claim against him must properly be characterized as a claim of medical malpractice - i.e., a claim that he denied Mr. Ward proper medical care before discharging him from the hospital, or a claim that the discharge ...

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