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Steel v. Alameda County Sheriff's Office

United States District Court, N.D. California

December 23, 2019

CANDACE STEEL, et al., Plaintiffs,


          JAMES DONATO United States District Judge

         As alleged in the first amended complaint (“FAC”), Candace Steel was left alone in a jail cell to give birth to her child, Baby H, while in the pretrial custody of the Alameda County Sheriff's Office. Dkt. No. 10. Steel was not given any assistance or care during the delivery. Baby H was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, and Steel had to stick her fingers into Baby H's mouth to start respiration. Sheriff's deputies went into Steel's cell only after they heard Baby H cry.

         Steel and Baby H are the plaintiffs in this civil rights action. Defendants are the Sheriff's Office, certain individuals, the California Forensic Medical Group (“CFMG”), which is under contract with Alameda County to provide medical services at the jail, and the County itself. CFMG answered the complaint and is not a party to the pending motion. Dkt. No. 17.

         The Alameda County defendants have challenged the sufficiency of the allegations in the FAC under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Dkt. No. 14. Their main argument is that the FAC does not plausibly allege that plaintiffs' injuries were the result of a government pattern, practice, or custom under Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). “Monell is a case about responsibility.” Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 478 (1986). It requires “a plaintiff seeking to impose liability on a municipality under [Section] 1983 to identify a municipal ‘policy' or ‘custom' that caused the plaintiff's injury” to “ensure[] that a municipality is held liable only for those deprivations . . . [that] may fairly be said to be” its own. Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 403-04 (1997) (citations omitted).

         These standards are amply satisfied here as a pleading matter. Plaintiffs allege that their injuries arose out of the Sheriff's Office's contract with CFMG, which contained financial terms that discouraged adequate medical care, including procedures such as labor and delivery, for detainees. These allegations are sufficiently specific and concrete to plausibly state a policy or practice under Monell.

         The outcome is different for the California state law claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress (“IIED”) and negligence per se. These claims are not adequately supported by the facts and applicable law, and are dismissed with leave to amend.


         Taking the FAC's nonconclusory allegations as true for the motion to dismiss, see Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007), the salient facts are straightforward. Steel was arrested on misdemeanor charges by local police officers, and jailed at the Santa Rita facility in July 2017. Dkt. No. 10 ¶ 37. The charges were subsequently dismissed.

         At the time of arrest, Steel was visibly pregnant. Before going to the jail, the police officers took her to a hospital “for the purpose of medical clearance.” Id. ¶ 38. Steel told the attending hospital staff that she had used controlled substances during the pregnancy, had not received any prenatal care, and did not know her due date. Id. ¶¶ 40, 42. She also said that she had had seizures and a spontaneous delivery in a previous pregnancy. Id. ¶ 41. Doctors evaluated Steel as at least 8 months pregnant and suffering from a urinary tract infection (“UTI”), which the FAC alleges is a condition associated with early delivery. Id. ¶¶ 39, 43-44.

         Steel was surrendered to the Sheriff's Office and booked into Santa Rita Jail shortly after midnight on July 21, 2017. Id. ¶ 37. The jail intake form noted the medical information from the hospital -- Steel's overall condition, lack of prenatal care, recent substance use, history of pregnancy-related seizures, UTI diagnosis, and the fact that she was not sure about her due date. Id. ¶ 45. Later in her first day at the jail, Steel reported painful uterine cramping and contractions to the jail's medical staff from CFMG. Id. ¶¶ 47-48. She was taken back to the hospital, where she tested positive for fetal fibronectin, which the FAC alleges is also associated with preterm delivery, like the UTI. Id. ¶¶ 49-50.

         Steel went into labor on July 23, 2017, approximately 60 hours after she arrived at the jail. She told jail personnel that she was experiencing severe cramping and pain, and could not stand or walk, but only crawl on hands and knees. Id. ¶¶ 51-52. Other inmates who saw Steel's distress told the jailers that there was a medical emergency. Id. ¶ 53. A CFMG nurse examined Steel, and concluded that her cervix was not dilated and that she was experiencing nothing but a stomach ache. Id. ¶ 54. The FAC alleges that the nurse also said Steel was exaggerating her distress. Id. After hearing the nurse's report, sheriffs deputies removed Steel to an isolation cell. Id. ¶ 55.

         Steel went into labor and delivery in the isolation cell. She alleges that she spent hours screaming in pain, alone and unattended, before giving birth to Baby H. Id. ¶¶ 57-58. In addition to the obvious physical travails from giving birth without any modern palliatives or a physician's care, Steel was distraught and terrified that she and her child could die in the cell. Id. ¶ 59.

         Baby H was born with the umbilical cord around her neck. Id. ¶ 61. Steel noticed Baby H was not breathing and stuck her fingers in Baby's H mouth to try to stimulate respiration. Id. Only when deputies heard Baby H crying did they enter Steel's cell to attend to the mother and newborn child. Id. ¶ 62.

         The FAC states that Alameda County had outsourced medical care of detainees at Santa Rita jail to CFMG. Id. ¶¶ 24-36. Plaintiffs allege that the contract with CFMG made it liable for all costs associated with hospital stays and services, without any compensation from Alameda County. Id. ¶¶ 25-28. They contend this arrangement created “a financial incentive and imperative for CFMG to refuse and withhold inpatient hospitalization services to all inmates, including inmates in active labor.” Id. ¶ 33.



         The pleading requirements in Rule 8, as construed in Twombly and Iqbal, apply to Section 1983 claims against local government entities. AE ex rel. Hernandez v. Cty. of Tulare,666 F.3d 631, 636-37 (9th Cir. 2012). Under these familiar standards, the complaint must provide “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), including “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. “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.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, ...

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