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Findling v. Michigan Department of Corrections

United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Northern Division

September 11, 2019

DARREN FINDLING as Personal Representative for the Estate of JEREMY ALAN GARZA, Plaintiff,

          Hon. Gordon J. Quist, U.S. District Judge.



         A. Introduction

         In 2014, Jeremy Alan Garza tragically took his own life while he was incarcerated at the Marquette Branch Prison (MBP). Plaintiff Darren Findling, a personal representative for Garza's estate, filed this lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) and several of its employees: Warden Napel, Deputy Warden Alexander, Deputy Warden Place, Corrections Officer Wagner, Corrections Officer Kessler, Corrections Officer Viitala[1], Corrections Officer Whitney, Corrections Officer LaForest, Corrections Officer Kutchie[2], and Sergeant Bush. Findling asserts that Defendants were deliberately indifferent to Garza's medical needs, in violation of the Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. He also asserts gross negligence state-law claims against Defendants.

         Defendants filed a “Motion for Summary Judgment and Qualified Immunity.” (ECF No. 27.) For the reasons stated below, the undersigned respectfully recommends that the Court grant in part and deny in part Defendants' motion. If the Court adopts this Report and Recommendation, the remaining claims in this case will be deliberate indifference and gross negligence claims against Defendants Kutchie and LaForest.

         B. Factual Allegations

         Prior to committing suicide, Garza had a history of mental health problems. Medical records show that Garza had been diagnosed with a mood disorder, polysubstance dependence, post-traumatic stress disorder, ADHD, substance related disorder, borderline personality disorder, and antisocial personally disorder. (ECF No. 31-2, PageID.348.) Garza's “Treatment Plan/Review” from April 4, 2014 shows that he had a difficult upbringing. (ECF No. 31-4. PageID.366-374.) As a child, he was physically abused, sexually abused, and struggled with a learning disability in school. (ECF No. 31-4. PageID.366.)[3]

         On August 14, 2013, Garza was transferred from the Kinross Correctional Facility to the Level V section of MBP. (ECF No. 31-2, PageID.350.) He spent the next eight months in administrative segregation at MBP. For approximately four to six of those months, Garza's cell was located next to the cell of another inmate, Michael Delaney. (ECF No. 31-5, PageID.378.)

         On April 10, 2014, at around 8:15 A.M., Garza was escorted to a visit with his mother, Barbara Garza. (ECF No. 28-2, PageID.152.) The officers on duty in Garza's unit at this time included Defendants Kutchie, LaForest, and Viitala, as well as Corrections Officer Royea. (ECF No. 31-7, PageID.414.) While Garza was visiting with his mother, Defendants Kutchie and LaForest shook down Garza's cell and removed various magazines and letters. (ECF No. 31-7, PageID.421.)

         When Garza returned to his cell at around 10:30 A.M., he became irate because of the missing items. (ECF No. 31-5, PageID.380.) According to Inmate Delaney, Garza asked for his property back and, when the officers refused, he asked to see the shift commander, Defendant Viitala. (ECF No. 31-5, PageID.380.) Both of Garza's requests were denied, and he began to scream that he needed to see his psychologist. (ECF No. 31-5, PageID.380.) Someone then told Garza to “sit [his] faggot ass down.” (ECF No. 31-5, PageID.380.) Garza began screaming that he was going to kill himself if a psychologist or shift commander did not come to see him. (ECF No. 31-5, PageID.381.) The officers then walked away from Garza's cell. (ECF No. 31-5, PageID.381.)

         At this time, Delaney and another inmate attempted to calm Garza down, which appeared to work until the officers made their rounds and walked past Garza's cell. (ECF No. 31-5, PageID.381-382.) Similarly, Garza calmed down briefly when Nurse Gluesing came to his cell to give him his daily medication at approximately 10:41 A.M. (ECF No. 31-5, PageID.381-382 and ECF No28-2, PageID.155.) But when the officers conducted security rounds past Garza's cell, he started screaming again that he was going to kill himself if he did not get to see his psychologist. (ECF No. 31-5, PageID.382.) One of the guards allegedly told Garza to “quit playing games” and “go ahead.” (ECF No. 31-5, PageID.382.) Garza responded that he was going to hang himself. (ECF No. 31-5, PageID.382.) The officer allegedly replied: “well, go ahead and do it. You are not going to do it. You just had a visit. You are not a lifer. You are close to going home.” (ECF No. 31-5, PageID.382.)

         After the officers walked away from Garza's cell, Delaney and another inmate again attempted to talk to Garza. (ECF No. 31-5, PageID.383.) But Garza went silent two to three minutes after the officers left. (ECF No. 31-5, PageID.383.) Both Defendants Kutchie and Viitala, who were talking in Defendant Viitala's office nearby, also noticed that Garza became silent. (ECF No. 28-2, PageID.154.)

         After noticing the silence, Defendant Kutchie went to Garza's cell to check on his temperament before making his rounds to serve lunch trays. (ECF No. 31-7, PageID.426.) When he arrived at the cell, Defendant Kutchie saw Garza with a bedsheet around his neck that was tied to the sprinkler pipe and one of his knees on a footlocker. (ECF No. 31-7, PageID.426.) Because Defendant Kutchie was concerned that Garza was faking, he summoned help and dispersed a chemical agent into the cell. (ECF No. 31-7, PageID.426.) When Garza did not respond, Defendant Kutchie and Officer Royea entered the cell, untied the bedsheet, and laid Garza on the ground. (ECF No. 31-10, PageID.464.) They attempted to perform CPR, which was difficult because of the chemical agent. (ECF No. 31-10, PageID.464.) Shortly thereafter, additional staff arrived to help. (ECF No. 28-2, PageID.154-155.) At 11:24 A.M., an ambulance arrived at MBP to transport Garza to the hospital. (ECF No. 28-2, PageID.155.) At 11:58 A.M., Garza was pronounced dead. (ECF No. 28-2, PageID.155.)

         The next day, Inmate Delaney sent a letter to Garza's mother detailing the incident. (ECF No. 31-11, PageID.470.) Delaney explained that Garza returned to his cell and noticed that the officers took some of his property. (ECF No. 31-11, PageID.470.) Delaney further explained that Garza said he was going to kill himself and “they all started laughing at him saying go ahead at which time he hung himself[.]” (ECF No. 31-11, PageID.470.)

         C. Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate when the record reveals that there are no genuine issues as to any material fact in dispute and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56; Kocak v. Comty. Health Partners of Ohio, Inc., 400 F.3d 466, 468 (6th Cir. 2005). The standard for determining whether summary judgment is appropriate is “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” State Farm Fire & Cas. Co. v. McGowan, 421 F.3d 433, 436 (6th Cir. 2005) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986)). The court must consider all pleadings, depositions, affidavits, and admissions on file, and draw all justifiable inferences in favor of the party opposing the motion. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Twin City Fire Ins. Co. v. Adkins, 400 F.3d 293, 296 (6th Cir. 2005).

         D. Analysis

         Findling asserts deliberate indifference and gross negligence claims against the MDOC and each individual Defendant. The undersigned will analyze these claims in three separate groups. First, the undersigned respectfully recommends that the Court grant summary judgment in favor of the MDOC based on Eleventh Amendment immunity. Second, the undersigned respectfully recommends that the Court grant summary judgment in favor of Defendants Napel, Alexander, Place, Wagner, Kessler, Whitney, and Bush because they were not personally involved in any of the allegations in this case. Third, as further described below, the undersigned respectfully recommends that the Court grant summary judgment in favor of Defendant Viitala, but deny the motion for summary judgment as to Defendants Kutchie and LaForest. If the Court adopts these recommendations, only Defendants Kutchie and LaForest will remain in the case.

         1. Michigan Department of Corrections

         It is well-established that a plaintiff may not maintain a § 1983 action against the MDOC. Regardless of the form of relief requested, the states and their departments are immune under the Eleventh Amendment from suit in the federal courts, unless the state has waived immunity or Congress has expressly abrogated Eleventh Amendment immunity by statute. See Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman,465 U.S. 89, 98-101 (1984); Alabama v. Pugh, 438 U.S. 781, 782 (1978); O'Hara v. Wigginton, 24 F.3d 823, 826 (6th Cir. 1993). Congress has not expressly abrogated Eleventh Amendment immunity by statute, Quern v. Jordan,440 U.S. 332, 341 (1979), and the State of Michigan has not consented to civil rights suits in federal court. Abick v. Michigan,803 F.2d 874, 877 (6th Cir. 1986). In numerous unpublished opinions, the Sixth Circuit has specifically held that the MDOC is absolutely immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment. See, e.g., McCoy v. Michigan,369 Fed.Appx. 646, 653-54 (6th Cir. 2010); Turnboe v. Stegall, 2000 WL1679478, at *2 (6th Cir. Nov. 1, 2000). In addition, the State of Michigan (acting through the Michigan Department of Corrections) is not a “person” who may be sued under ...

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