Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Federal Court Allows Suit Against County Over Jail Death to Proceed
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
A federal judge yesterday denied a request by the County of Los Angeles to dismiss a suit brought by the family of a man who allegedly died in jail because he was denied the use of an asthma inhaler.
Rejecting the county’s argument that California sheriffs are protected from suit in federal courts by the Eleventh Amendment when they act in a law enforcement capacity, U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson of the Central District of California ruled that the family of Eric Smith could proceed with a suit alleging that the county violated his civil rights because the case upon which the county relied in moving for dismissal was wrongly decided by the California Supreme Court.
According to the plaintiffs’ complaint, Smith was incarcerated at the county’s Men’s Central Jail when he died on Feb. 20, 2007. The plaintiffs alleged that Smith suffered from respiratory problems, for which his medical provider had prescribed him an asthma inhaler as treatment, and that he informed county employees during his incarceration about his condition and the medication he needed to survive.
However, the plaintiffs claimed, jail officials failed to provide Smith with an inhaler—despite their knowledge of his condition—and Smith suffered in pain “for an appreciable period of time” before ultimately dying.
Alleging violations of Smith’s civil rights under the U.S. Constitution, as well as state tort claims for negligence and wrongful death, the plaintiffs sued the county and 10 unknown individuals contending that the failure to provide Smith with necessary asthma medicine stemmed from a policy or practice by the county of denying inmates necessary medical care and of failing to train employees how to provide such care.
The county moved to dismiss the case for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, arguing that the complaint failed to show that the denial of medical care constituted a policy or practice sufficient to impose liability on a municipality, and that the county sheriff was a state actor entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity under the California Supreme Court’s decision in Venegas v. County of Los Angeles (2004) 32 Cal. 4th 820.
The court in Venegas held that “California sheriffs act as state officers while performing state law enforcement duties such as investigating possible criminal activity,” reasoning that the Eleventh Amendment applies to “situations in which…sheriffs are actually engaged in performing law enforcement duties, such as investigating and prosecuting crime, or training staff and developing policy involving such matters.”
But Pregerson denied the motion, concluding that the plaintiff’s allegations regarding the county’s policies and practices gave the county the requisite amount of notice of the claims it would be forced to defend, and that the California Supreme Court had “misconstrued federal constitutional law” in Venegas.
Writing that the question of whether a sheriff was a county or state official was “not purely one of state law,” but “[r]ather, at bottom…one of federal law,” Pregerson said that the critical factor in justifying extension of Eleventh Amendment immunity to a county sheriff was the state’s financial liability for county torts.
“[T]he majority opinion in Venegas acknowledged that the State of California is not liable for its counties’ tortious or unlawful acts, but dismissed the information as unimportant,” he said. “As a matter of federal law, this Court finds that California’s lack of liability for county torts is dispositive, and rejects the Venegas opinion’s contrary holding….
“Under the correct federal framework, even after Venegas, California law reveals that sheriffs are county—not state—representatives.”
Pregerson explained that “[t]he Venegas decision, if adopted by the federal courts, would essentially end federal civil rights litigation as we know it.”
Pointing to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs. of City of N.Y. (1978) 436 U.S. 658—which rejected a broad claim that local agencies are immune from federal civil rights suits—he wrote that “Monell already limits county liability to official policies, practices, and customs; the Venegas logic would appear to extend immunity to almost all of a sheriff’s activity, including his management and administration duties.”
Pregerson further noted that both practical and legal reasons militated against adoption of the Venegas decision.
“A state that claims Eleventh Amendment immunity for county officials may well reap what it sows,” he said. “If sheriffs and their departments are state actors, then by all logic the state, not the county, should absorb the liability relating to these cases….
“[I]f Venegas is correct, then the Court wonders whether the wrong lawyers are representing Defendant in this matter, for it would seem that the Sheriff is entitled to a defense paid for and selected by the State of California.”
In a separate portion of his opinion, Pregerson also rejected the county’s argument that the complaint should be dismissed because “medical malpractice” does not violate the Constitution, noting that U.S. Supreme Court precedent holds that “‘deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners’ violates the Eighth Amendment.”
He also rejected the county’s argument that the plaintiffs’ claims alleging an unconstitutional custom of failing to properly train employees as to providing medical care, and alleging that the county actively promulgated and condoned a policy of denying medical care, were duplicative.
The case is Smith v. County of Los Angeles, CV 07-06207 DDP.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company