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Merritt-Ruth v. Frey-Latta

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

November 21, 2016

MARION MERRITT-RUTH and SIDNEY GURLEY, JR., Plaintiffs,
v.
OFFICER SUSAN FREY-LATTA, OFFICER THOMAS BLAIR, and BETH FRITZ, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [86]

          Hon. Nancy G. Edmunds, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff-decedent Sidney Gurley ("Gurley") was a detainee at the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility when he began to experience abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloody urine, and loss of appetite. Shortly after reporting his symptoms to prison officials, he was sent to the infirmary and seen by Defendant Beth Fritz, R.N. ("Fritz" or "Nurse Fritz"). While it is unclear exactly how Gurley presented to Fritz, she ultimately concluded that he was suffering from a urinary tract infection, and requested the attending physician to prescribe antibiotics. Unfortunately, Gurley was never examined by the physician, and Fritz's diagnosis was inaccurate. The following morning, Gurley passed away after suffering from acute peritonitis caused by a ruptured appendix. This civil rights action was initiated against the officers and medical personnel that interacted with Gurley in the hours leading up to his death.

         Currently before the Court is Defendants' motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. (Dkt. 86). Plaintiff's complaint is premised on the Eighth Amendment, with two closely related state law claims. In the end, the Court finds that there are factual questions bearing on the reasonableness of the Officer Defendants' response to Gurley's serious medical condition. Accordingly, for the reasons stated more fully below, the Court GRANTS IN PART Defendants' motion.

         I. Factual Background

         The facts giving rise to this dispute revolve principally around a period of 24 hours beginning on August 5, 2011. That morning, Gurley approached Officer Aaron Jones ("Jones" or "Officer Jones") holding his stomach and complaining that "he had blood in his [] bowel movements" and "severe abdominal pain." (Plf.'s Resp. Ex. 5, Jones Dep. Tr. 12:24-25; 20:24-25). Consistent with Michigan Department of Corrections ("MDOC") policy, Jones called the prison infirmary-possibly for the second time concerning this issue, the record is unclear-and requested approval to send Gurley down for treatment. (Jones Dep. Tr. 20:3-7). At approximately 8:47 a.m., Gurley arrived at the healthcare unit and was met by Defendant Nurse Fritz. According to the "nurse protocol" completed by Fritz, Gurley complained of nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain, and noted that he "was trickling urine, orange and red, . . . didn't poop for 3 days . . . then diarrhea for 3 days, then pooped formed yesterday[;] after eating last two days I had to go right to the bathroom." (Defs' Mot. Ex. A, August 4, Gurley Med. Record 007.).

         After considering Gurley's initial comments, Fritz maintains that she:

palpated (or touched) all four quadrants of Mr. Gurley's abdomen and then listened with a stethoscope . . . . Initially, when I listened, bowl sounds were not present, indicating constipation . . . Mr. Gurley had been given a laxative during this appointment and left the examination to use the restroom. When he returned, Mr. Gurley stated that he "pooped", that it was formed, and that he felt better. I again checked for bowl sounds, which were present in all four quadrants. When I palpated Mr. Gurley's left upper quadrant . . . he did not appear to be in any distress. Mr. Gurley declined any pain medications . . . and indicated that he had not taken any pain medication previously for his illness.

(Id. at Ex. A, Fritz Aff. ¶ 5). Notably, this portion of Fritz's account does not appear in the nurse protocol completed during Gurley's appointment. Rather, it was incorporated as an "addendum" days after Gurley died. See (Id. at Ex. A, Gurley Med. Record 006). According to Fritz, Gurley's records were "updated [after the fact] due to computer failure. . . ." (Plf.'s Resp. Ex. 14). In any event, Fritz's clinical observations led her to believe that "Mr. Gurley was experiencing a urinary tract infection ['UTI']." (Ex. A, Fritz Aff. ¶ 6). A test of Gurley's urine "revealed that there were white blood cells present . . . indicating possible infection." (Id.).

         Armed with Gurley's test results, Fritz approached Savithri Kakani-the attending Physician's Assistant-for a diagnosis. Kakani testified that Fritz never disclosed that Gurley originally presented with "zero bowl sounds", and seemingly left out his complaints of vomiting and abdominal pain. (Plf.'s Resp. Ex. 12, Kakani Dep. Tr. 180:1-7; 171:4-5) (Q. "And are you positive that you were told only about the UTI? A. Yes."). This is significant, Kakani maintained, "because it could potentially be life-threatening." (Id. at 181:9-11). Instead, Fritz opted to focus on Gurley's positive urinalysis, explaining that, "I think this patient has UTI, he has leukocytes in his urine." (Id. at 88:12-19). When asked whether Gurely had any abdominal pain or "other symptoms", Fritz purportedly responded "no". (Id.). In the end, Kakani never personally examined Gurley, and agreed, based on Fritz's observations, that he was likely suffering from a UTI.[1] Gurley was prescribed a round of antibiotics and given a medical lay in; "meaning that he was excused from participating in work or school assignments for the next two days following the visit." (Defs, ' Mot. Ex. A, Fritz Aff. ¶ 6).

         Gurley's condition upon leaving the infirmary is the subject of considerable debate. According to Fritz, Gurley "voiced understanding of the given instructions and ambulated without difficulty out of the healthcare clinic." (Id.). He was not "guarding his stomach" or "bent over." (Plf.'s Resp. Ex. 13, Fritz Dep. Tr. 71:13-21). Gurley's fellow inmates, on other hand, have a very different memory. Joseph Hamilton recalled seeing Gurley after "he came out of [h]ealth [c]are that morning, . . . [looking] even worse. He could barely stand up. He was bent over." (Id. at Ex. 10, Hamilton Aff. ¶ 6). Donald Rocker likewise testified that Gurley "was walking very, very slowly, bent over, holding his stomach. He told me the pain was killing him and he told that to the nurse, but she did nothing for him, just saying it was a UTI." (Id. at Ex. 10, Rocker Aff. ¶ 3).

         Upon returning to his cell, Gurley encountered Officer Jones and explained that he was diagnosed with a UTI. (Id. at Ex. 5, Jones Dep. Tr. 16:12-14). Jones did not indicate whether Gurley appeared to be in pain at that moment. Around 2 p.m., Jones was replaced by Defendant Officer Thomas Blair ("Blair" or "Officer Blair"). Gurley knew Blair well; he worked as a second shift porter so he would frequently communicate with Blair "in order to get his supplies and stuff he needed to complete his job." (Plf.'s Resp. Ex. 19, Blair Dep. Tr. 11:7-8). Prior to August 5, Blair maintains that Gurley never raised any medical concerns.[2] (Id. at Tr. 11:17-24). That evening, however, Blair was approached by inmate Rodney Stevenson ("Stevenson") who indicated that "Gurley should be taken to healthcare because he did not look good and because he appeared to be in pain." (Plf.'s Resp. Ex. 8, Stevenson Aff. ¶ 5). Blair then questioned Gurley, who reported that "he was having stomach issues and blood in his stool." (Id. at Ex. 19, Blair Dep. Tr. 12:17-18). Moments later, Blair testified that he contacted healthcare, relayed Gurley's symptoms, and was granted clearance to send him back down for treatment. (Id. at Tr. 13:13-19); (Tr. 14:23-25) ("when I relayed the information, they . . . stated afterwards that [Gurley] had been to [healthcare] earlier in the day and they'd be willing to talk to him . . . .").[3] Hamilton likewise testified that Gurley was sent back to the infirmary during Blair's shift. (Ex. D, Hamilton Dep. Tr. 39:11-14).

         Blair's account is contradicted by inmates Robert Jones ("R. Jones") and Stevenson. According to R. Jones, "I was with [Gurley] when officer Blair had contact with him . . . we begged Blair to please call Health Care and send [him] over there. Blair just refused. He said he wouldn't send [him] over there because [he] had already been over to Health Care once earlier that day." (Plf.'s Resp. Ex. 18, Jones. Aff. ¶¶ 7-11). Similarly, Stevenson maintains that "Blair told me that Mr. Gurley had already been to healthcare that day." (Id. Ex. 8, Stevenson Aff. ¶ 5). In either case, Blair testified that he "made numerous rounds throughout the day and evening, and [Gurley] was laying his bed, you know, [resting]." (Id. He even worked out that day." (Plf.'s Resp. Ex. 8, Pruitt Aff. ¶ 6); see also (Ex. 8, McPharlin Aff. ¶ 5) ("I instructed Mr. Gurley that I thought he should be go to health care, [but] he resisted at first because I do not think he wanted to pay the co-pay required . . . and did not report the problem to a staff member until about 2-3 days before his death). Tr. 15:12-14). Shortly before the end of his shift, Blair followed-up with Gurley on his way to the restroom. Gurley reportedly indicated that "he felt a little better, . . . was going to follow [h]ealth [c]are's instructions and rest. And they said that they were going to call him out [to the clinic] in the morning." (Id. at Tr. 15:16-19).[4]

         Defendant Officer Sandra Frey-Latta ("Latta" or "Officer Latta") relieved Officer Blair, working the overnight shift in Gurley's unit. Latta approached Gurley that evening to inquire about his medical lay-in status. According to Latta, their conversation went something like this:

I basically asked him if he had gone to the doctor's and he said yes. And I asked him did you find out what was wrong . . . [a]nd he said yes, he did, and he found out he had a [UTI]. [I told him] if you need to see Health Care let us know. And the yard officer stated 'I'm not doing anything. So if you need to go just let me know and I'll walk you up. And [Gurley] stated something about he was working in the weight pit earlier that day . . . and also that he had a doctor's appointment the next morning so he didn't need to see Health Care.

(Plf.'s Resp. Ex. 23, Latta Dep. Tr. 13:4-14). Latta further remarked that Gurley "appeared fine" was "walking normally" and did not appear to be in distress. (Id. at Tr. 24:1-11). Officer Michael Curtis, working alongside Latta, confirmed much of her testimony, and further noted that Gurley "indicated he did not need to go [to the clinic] as he was already scheduled for a call-out appointment . . . the following morning." (Defs.' Mot. Ex. G, Curtis Aff. ¶ 3).

         James Street ("Street"), an inmate housed in Gurley's unit, has a very different recollection of the events taking place during Latta's shift. According to Street, around 10:30 p.m. he "followed Gurley down the hall on the way to the restroom. [Latta] saw Gurley bent over walking slowly, groaning in pain holding his stomach clearly in severe discomfort. [Latta] said nothing . . . . The [vomiting] sounds Gurley made [in the restroom] were loud enough where [Latta] would have been in a position to hear them." (Plf.'s Resp. Ex. 22, Street Aff. ¶ 2). Despite his concern about Gurley's well-being, Street testified that he "never told . . . Latta [or any other staff member] that Mr. Gurley was having trouble and that he was throwing up or anything like that . . . ." (Defs.' Mot. Ex. I, Street Dep. Tr. 24:5-14). Nor did he observe Gurley stop at the officers' station after the incident in the restroom. (Id. at Tr. 22-23). This is the last communication on record concerning Gurley's status that evening.

         The following morning, August 6, 2011, Gurley was found unresponsive by his bunk mate, Warren Hamilton. (Plf.'s Resp. Ex. 22, Hamilton Aff. ¶ 3). At approximately 7:30 a.m., Gurley was pronounced dead. (Id. at Ex. 14, Gurley Medical Records). An autopsy later revealed that Gurley "died of acute peritonitis caused by perforated acute appendicitis", commonly referred to as a ruptured appendix. (Id. at Ex. 4, Autopsy).

         In late November 2012, Gurley's Estate (the "Estate") filed suit. The complaint named a number of Michigan Department of Corrections officers and medical personnel who interacted with Gurley in the hours leading up to his death.[5] For reasons that are largely irrelevant, many of the original Defendants were dismissed and the Estate was granted leave to file an amended complaint. See Ruth v. Michigan Dep't of Corr., No. 12-15251, 2014 WL 1319685 (E.D. Mich. Apr. 1, 2014). In lieu of filing an amended complaint, the Estate instituted a new action on July 22, 2014. That case, like it's predecessor, was assigned to the Honorable Patrick J. Duggan. Shortly after Judge Duggan resolved Defendants' procedural challenges, the matter was transferred to the undersigned.[6]See Merritt-Ruth v. Latta, No. ...


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