The Executive Defendants knew about the overcrowding, insufficient medical care, staffing shortage, and numerous detainee deaths and suicides at CCCC. Nonetheless, the Executive Defendants implemented a plan that they knew would exacerbate those problems without mitigating the attendant risks. Unsurprisingly, the overcrowding worsened. The already understaffed (and undertrained) CCCC correctional officers and medical team became even more understaffed. And no policies were enacted to lower suicide rates or to improve healthcare. In fact, the Executive Defendants allegedly had a “custom, policy, or practice” of ignoring health risks to suicidal detainees. These allegations are enough to survive the pleading stage.
Moderwell v. Cuyahoga County, Ohio
No. 20 – 3879
United States Court of Appeals
May 12, 2021
The estate of Mr. Larry Johnson, who died while in the Cuyahoga County Jail, filed a 42 U.S.C. §1983 lawsuit against Cuyahoga County for:
- Supervisory Liability.
- Deliberate Indifference to serious medical need.
- Excessive Use of Force.
- Monell Liability. [A municipality may be held liable for an officer’s actions when the plaintiff establishes the officer violated their constitutional right, and that violation resulted from an official municipal policy, an unofficial custom, or because the municipality was deliberately indifferent in a failure to train or supervise the officer.]
Cuyahoga County, the defendant, sought Summary Judgement on all claims but the Northern District of Ohio Federal [entry level] Court denied the motion. Cuyahoga County appealed the denial of the Summary Judgment to the Sixth Circuit Appellate Court. The court upheld the denial of the Summary Judgment motion.
On Wednesday June 20, 2018, Mr. Larry Johnson was jailed at the Cuyahoga County Correctional Center [hereinafter CCCC] while awaiting trial on a charge of petty theft. During his intake assessment, a nurse noted that he was “[L]ikely a suicide risk because he had attempted to harm himself in the past.” Allegedly, due to a custom or policy of ignoring such medical conditions no protective action or treatment was taken in response. Three days later, Mr. Johnson told a nurse that he was “[S]uicidal.” Again, no action was taken in response. The plaintiffs further allege that defendants Mr. Joseph Johnston, Mr. Ronald Channell, Mr. Anter Miller, and Mr. Kurt Emerson, all CCCC correctional officers, were aware that Mr. Johnson was a suicide risk.
On Friday June 29, 2018, Mr. Johnson was caught trying to steal food from the CCCC commissary. According to the plaintiff pleadings, Warden Eric Ivey was “[K]nown to deprive food to inmates and that is likely what caused Larry Johnson to try and steal food.” Despite knowing that he was a suicide risk, the Corrections Defendants placed Mr. Johnson in solitary confinement. He did not receive an assessment or medical treatment, and no one checked in on him. Late that evening, Mr. Johnson was found hanging in the cell. Plaintiffs allege that CCCC lacked a device with which to cut him down, Mr. Johnson was left hanging even after he was discovered. On Sunday July 1, 2018, Mr. Johnson died from his injuries.
Cuyahoga County Correctional Center, 1215 West Third Street, Cleveland, Ohio.
Related background that frames the plaintiff’s allegations.
In January 2015, Defendant Armond Budish became the Cuyahoga County Executive. To increase revenue for Cuyahoga County, Mr. Budish developed a plan for the “regionalization” of Cuyahoga County area jails. In essence, the regionalization plan called for CCCC to house detainees and prisoners from nearby communities in exchange for significant sums of money. However, CCCC was already severely overcrowded and understaffed. For example, even before the regionalization plan began, the CCCC nursing director, Mr. Marcus Harris, complained that inmates were “[N]ot being given critical healthcare and that one nurse was doing as many as 100 intake assessments a day.” When no action was taken in response to his complaints, Mr. Harris resigned.
Around the same time, the union representing the CCCC correctional officers “[C]omplained to the County that there were serious staffing level problems and health and safety problems at” CCCC. Nonetheless, in March 2018, the first stage of regionalization began with the transfer of City of Cleveland inmates and detainees to CCCC. By May 22, 2018, the Cuyahoga County Council agreed that the issues at CCCC, including the understaffing, were “mission critical.”
At the Council meeting, Mr. Gary Brack, a former CCCC medical supervisor, informed the Council that CCCC had a “nursing crisis”. Mr. Brack informed the Council that Mr. Budish fired him after his many requests for more nurses were denied. After the meeting, Cuyahoga Council members sent a letter to Mr. Budish stating that the situation at CCCC was “a life-or-death issue.” Mr. Budish took no action in response to the letter. Even after a CCCC inmate, Mr. Theodore Carter, died on June 10, 2018, from a lack of medical care, the situation at CCCC was not addressed.
“The Executive Defendants knew about the overcrowding, insufficient medical care, staffing shortage, and numerous detainee deaths and suicides at CCCC. Nonetheless, the Executive Defendants implemented a plan that they knew would exacerbate those problems without mitigating the attendant risks. Unsurprisingly, the overcrowding worsened. The already understaffed (and undertrained) CCCC correctional officers and medical team became even more understaffed. And no policies were enacted to lower suicide rates or to improve healthcare. In fact, the Executive Defendants allegedly had a “custom, policy, or practice” of ignoring health risks to suicidal detainees. These allegations are enough to survive the pleading stage.”
- This case is not yet concluded as this particular proceeding is simply a holding for the case to proceed at trial. There is a chance that the case will be settled out of court and there will be no more litigation.
- What should be of significant concern for law enforcement leadership is the court’s decision concerning executive defendants. The court makes it very clear that the county’s leadership made a series of executive decisions for which they could be held liable. The county leadership knew that the jail was understaffed, under trained and did not have enough nurses to meet the needs of the prisoners. However, the county leadership decided to increase the number of prisoners by accepting prisoners from neighboring jurisdictions without commensurately increasing Cuyahoga County staffing or addressing training needs. The court had strong language for the county’s leadership and this should be recognized by all law enforcement leaders in the Sixth Circuit – Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.
- If a law enforcement leader is made aware of the deprivation of constitutional rights of a detainee, suspect, arrestee or in some other way a person is in ‘custody’ and the leader does not make affirmative steps to correct those errors, the municipality and even the individual may be held liable. Liability can also be attached to law enforcement leaders who create policy or have established policies that deprive citizens of constitutional rights. Law enforcement leaders MUST be acutely aware of their own policies, how the officers interpret the policies and how the policies are actually carried out. If a repeated deprivation of civil rights occurs, the officer and agency may be held liable but also the law enforcement executive could also be found liable. This is why it is imperative that law enforcement leaders assure the policies are lawful and constitutional. Equally important is that the law enforcement leader ensure that his team is properly trained in both policy and up to date case law.
- If the plaintiffs allegations are true, the Moderwell case tragically reads like a B-rated movie. The leadership of Cuyahoga County was REPEATEDLY informed by mid-level managers that the jail was understaffed, under trained and under equipped. Yet, the top executive of the county, Mr. Budish, pressed forward with increasing the number of inmates without commensurately increasing the resources. In the midst of this decision making a nursing supervisor resigned and the next one was terminated for requesting resources. It appears that the plaintiffs do not need a good attorney to resolve this litigation.
- Law enforcement is THE hardest job in America. Law enforcement leaders must ensure their teams are regularly trained in policy, tactics and case law.
Don’t fail your training.
Don’t let your training fail you!
Be safe, smart and Objectively Reasonable!