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Delaware Federal Court Examines Deliberate Indifference Standard Required for Eighth Amendment Claims Against Prison Officials

Melchor Arias and Marie Christina Kurcan v. Carl Danberg, et al.
Case No. 1:15-cv-00197-GMS (United States District Court for the District of Delaware, December 18, 2015)

by Richard J. Medoff, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (

Available at:

Melchor Arias and Marie Christina Kurcan v. Carl Danberg, et al. involved motions to dismiss filed by Defendants in a civil rights based case filed against them pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 following the suicide of an individual while in pre-trial detention. The United States District Court for the District of Delaware concluded that the facts pled in the Plaintiffs’ Complaint suggested that some Defendants were negligent, but were insufficient to plausibly establish that the Defendants were deliberately indifferent. Thus, with one (1) exception, Judge Gregory M. Sleet granted the Defendants’ motions to dismiss Plaintiffs’ Eighth Amendment claims.

By way of factual background, Plaintiffs, Melchor Arias, Administrator of the Estate of Ian Arias and brother of Ian Arias, and Marie Cristina Kurcan, mother of Ian Arias, (collectively, "Plaintiffs"), filed the lawsuit at issue on March 2, 2015. The Complaint asserted civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Complaint named as Defendants the State of Delaware, the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services ("DHSS"), Delaware Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health ("DSAMH"), and Delaware Psychiatric Center ("DPC") (collectively, the "State Agency Defendants"). The Complaint also named DHSS Cabinet Secretary Rita Landgraf, former-DSAMH Director Kevin Ann Huckshom, and DPC Director Gregory Valentine (collectively, the "State Officer Defendants"). The complaint further named the Delaware Department of Correction ("DOC"), and DOC officials Carl Danberg, Commissioner of DOC, Karl Hines, Bureau Chief of Community Corrections, and Perry Phelps, Warden of James T. Vuaghn Correctional Center (the "DOC Defendants"). Finally, the Complaint named Dr. Clarence Watson, MD ("Watson"). The State Agency Defendants, the State Officer Defendants, the DOC Defendants, and Watson are collectively referred to herein as "the Defendants.”

The case arose from the suicide of lan Arias in 2013 while in pre-trial detention. Mr. Arias had a history of major depressive disorder with multiple suicide attempts. On June 28, 2012, Ian Arias was arrested for criminal charges and placed in the custody of the DOC. During pre-trial detention, Mr. Arias attempted to commit suicide at least twice and continually verbalized suicidal ideations. By court order, Mr. Arias was transferred from the DOC under the Treatment Review Committee (TRC) admission process to the Jane E. Mitchell Forensic Unit (the "Mitchell Unit") of the DPC for psychiatric stabilization. Mr. Arias was admitted on November 16, 2012 and placed under constant monitoring until December 10, 2012 when he denied suicidal ideations and was placed on fifteen (15) minute checks.

On December 25, 2012, Mr. Arias again started expressing suicidal ideations and returned to constant monitoring. The following day, Mr. Arias was taken off constant monitoring and placed back on fifteen (15) minute checks. Mr. Arias' verbalizations about committing suicide did not cease with medication. On February 13, 2013, Dr. Watson discharged Mr. Arias from the Mitchell Unit even though Mr. Arias exhibited psychomotor retardation and reported feeling suicidal. Mr. Arias informed Dr. Watson and the DPC staff that he would attempt suicide again. Mr. Arias' social worker informed Dr. Watson and the other DPS employees that Mr. Arias was not ready to be transferred back to the DOC. Despite all of this, Mr. Arias was transferred to the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center for pre-trial supervision. Shortly after, Mr. Arias entered the infirmary in the care of the CCS. On February 13, 2013, Mr. Arias was discharged from the infirmary by CCS and transferred back to pre-trial supervision despite continuous suicide threats by Mr. Arias. Mr. Arias was not placed under constant supervision. At approximately 10:10 a.m. on March 5, 2013, Mr. Arias was found unconscious in his cell by prison officials, having hung himself with bed sheets.

In support of their Eighth Amendment claims, Plaintiffs asserted that the vulnerability of Mr. Arias to suicide constituted a serious medical need that the Defendants failed to address. Plaintiffs claimed that this inaction constituted deliberate indifference which could be expected to lead to substantial and unnecessary injury and which did, in fact, lead to the death of Mr. Arias. The Defendants filed motions to dismiss Plaintiffs’ claims pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), asserting that Plaintiffs had not asserted facts sufficient to meet the requisite deliberate indifference standard.

The Court began its analysis by noting that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments impose upon prison officials a duty to address the serious medical needs of a pretrial detainee, including psychiatric needs, and that if prison officials know of a particular detainee's vulnerability to suicide, they may not be deliberately indifferent to that vulnerability. See Colburn v. Upper Darby Township, 838 F.2d 663, 668-69 (3d Cir. 1988); Simmons v. City of Philadelphia, 947 F.2d 1042, 1064 (3d Cir.1991). The Court explained that in order to make out a claim for an Eighth Amendment violation against a prison official, a defendant must prove: (1) the deprivation was "objectively, sufficiently serious," and (2) the prison official had "a sufficiently culpable state of mind," which requires that a prison official is "aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and he must also draw the inference." See Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834-37 (1994); BeersCapitol v. Whetzel, 256 F.3d 120, 131 (3d Cir. 2001).

In analyzing the facts at issue, the Court relied on the cases Freedman v. City of Allentown, 853 F.2d 1111 (3d Cir. 1988), and Colburn v. Darby Township, 838 F.2d 663 (3d Cir. 1988), as guides for the deliberate indifference analysis. In Freedman, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals found that prison officials were not deliberately indifferent after failing to act in a case where they saw that the prisoner had large prominent scars on his wrists from previous suicide attempts, holding that the failure of the prison officials to recognize the scars as "suicide hesitation cuts" was merely negligence, and therefore, did not support a § 1983 claim. See Freedman, 853 F.2d at 1113. On the other hand, in Colburn, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals found reckless indifference where there were visible scars on the prisoners wrists, the township's police knew that the prisoner had jumped from a window the preceding day, the detaining officer had to prevent her from swallowing three (3) Valium pills, and the prisoner shot herself with a gun that she had concealed on her person while detained. See Colburn, 838 F.2d at 664-65.

Turning to the case at bar, the Court found that the facts pled in Plaintiffs’ Complaint were insufficient to plausibly establish that the State Officer Defendants, State Agency Defendants, and DOC Defendants were deliberately indifferent; however, as to Dr. Watson, the Court found that Plaintiffs' allegations “at least cross the plausibility threshold.” The Court explained that the State and DOC officials may not have been actually aware of the substantial suicide risk that Mr. Arias posed; however, the Court found that the allegations with regards to Dr. Watson were sufficient to establish that Dr. Watson was aware of the risk for suicide.

In support of that conclusion, the Court cited the following allegations in Plaintiffs’ Complaint: (i) Dr. Watson was the psychiatrist assigned to Mr. Arias after he attempted suicide twice while in the custody of the DOC; (ii) Dr. Watson was aware of Mr. Arias' history of mental illness and suicide attempts and knew Mr. Arias threatened suicide if released; (iii) Dr. Watson's colleagues warned him that Mr. Arias was not ready to be released; (iv) Dr. Watson released Mr. Arias back into pre-trial detention without any special instructions or precautions; and (v) less than one (1) month after his release back into pre-trial detention, Mr. Arias took his own life. The Court held that these averments were sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss under the circumstances, noting that the allegations with regard to Dr. Watson were “substantially closer to Colburn than Freedman.”

Next, the Court addressed Plaintiffs’ claims regarding supervisory liability, noting that the Plaintiffs' deliberate indifference claims assigning responsibility to the supervisors for their deficient custom practices and policies required a different analysis. The Plaintiffs argued that they had asserted facts, which if proven demonstrate that Dr. Watson, State Agency Officials, and DOC Defendants were aware of a "pattern" of suicides. Specifically, Plaintiffs alleged that between 2006 and Mr. Arias' suicide, at least six (6) inmates died of suicide while in the custody of the DOC, and that these events led to a federal investigation.

The Court began its analysis on the supervisory liability issue by noting that the actions of an employee alone will not result in § 1983 liability under the theory of respondeat superior. See Monell v. New York City Dep't. of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 691 (1978). The Court explained that “a defendant in a civil rights action must have personal involvement in the alleged wrongs to be liable, and cannot be held responsible for a constitutional violation which he or she neither participated in nor approved." Baraka v. McGreevey, 481 F.3d 187, 210 (3d Cir. 2007). The Court further explained that personal involvement may be established through: (1) “personal direction or actual participation by the defendant in the misconduct;” or (2) “knowledge of and acquiescence in the misconduct,” and that failure to assert facts showing personal involvement of the defendant will result in dismissal. Id; see also Sample v. Diedcs, 885 F.2d 1099, 1117-18 (3d Cir. 1989).

Turning to the case at bar, the Court found that there were no allegations that State Official Defendants were directly or indirectly involved in Mr. Arias' care, and thus, concluded that supervisory liability could not be proven.

Next, Plaintiffs contended that Mr. Arias’ death was the direct result of the customs, practices, policies and procedures of the DOC Defendants, for failing to train and supervise properly DOC personnel to recognize suicidal inmates, to evaluate whether an inmate suffering from suicidal ideations should be returned to the general prison population, and to institute appropriate procedures for the timely transmission of important medical information to appropriate personnel. The DOC Defendants and Dr. Watson argued that the alleged failure to train, supervise, or implement policies claim must be dismissed for failure to plead any supporting facts.

Regarding this issue, the Court noted that § 1983 liability results only if the defendants caused an employee to violate another's constitutional rights, through execution of an official policy or settled informal custom. See Serafin v. City of Johnstown, 53 F. App'x 211, 213 (3d Cir. 2002). The Court explained that the Third Circuit follows a four (4)-part test based on the Supreme Court's reasoning in City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378 (1989), under which a plaintiff must identify a specific policy or practice that the supervisor failed to employ and show that: (1) the existing policy or practice created an unreasonable risk of the Eighth Amendment injury; (2) the supervisor was aware that the unreasonable risk was created; (3) the supervisor was indifferent to that risk; and (4) the injury resulted from the policy or practice. See Beers-Capitol v. Whetzel, 256 F.3d 120, 134 (3d Cir. 2001). The Court further explained that the test may be satisfied by showing either that the state actor failed to respond adequately to a pattern of past occurrences of injuries or failed to respond adequately to a great and obvious risk of constitutionally cognizable harm. Id. at 136-37.

The Court concluded that the Plaintiffs had not demonstrated that the policies at issue in the case were deficient. In particular, the Court noted that policies are not deficient “simply because they are not the best.” See Serafin v. City of Johnstown, 53 F. App'x at 215. According to the Court, it was clear that the DOC Defendants did not completely fail to act, as Mr. Arias spent three (3) of his eight (8) months incarcerated in treatment at the DPC. The Court noted that the Plaintiffs failed to allege that any of the Defendants' management practices led to a specific deficient policy or custom, or that the prison considered and rejected other more effective measures of suicide prevention. The Court further noted that the Plaintiffs had not identified specific training that could reasonably have been expected to prevent Mr. Arias' suicide, nor demonstrated that the risk reduction associated with the proposed training was so great and so obvious that the failure of those responsible for the content of the training program could reasonably be attributed to deliberate indifference.

For the foregoing reasons, the Court granted the Defendants' motions to dismiss all counts of Plaintiffs’ Complaint, except for Plaintiffs’ Cruel and Unusual Punishment claim against Dr. Watson.