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Claims Over Inmate’s|Suicide Can Proceed

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A federal judge denied Monterey's motion for summary judgment on claims that it refused to help a mentally ill man who later fatally stabbed a taxi driver and then hanged himself in jail.

A federal magistrate judge also entered sanctions against Peter Bertling, one of the defendant attorneys, finding that he "repeatedly and unapologetically flout[ed] guideline after guideline" and made a "sexist remark" during a deposition.

Silvia Guersenzvaig sued San Mateo and Monterey counties, several local and county law enforcement officers and agencies and two hospitals over their involvement in the death of her 20-year-old son, Joshua Claypole.

Claypole appeared at the Community Hospital of Monterey Peninsula in May 2013 asking for help, having been a patient at the hospital before. He had just been released from the county jail in Redwood City after having his car impounded because he was suspected of driving under the influence.

The hospital staff called the police and ordered Claypole to leave, and several hours later Claypole fatally stabbed a taxi driver.

While in the custody of the Seaside and Monterey police departments - and later the Monterey County Sheriff's Department - Claypole exhibited signs of mental illness and suicidal ideation, including comments about how he wanted to die by lethal injection and have his body cremated.

But the officers never evaluated Claypole for mental illness and although they briefly placed him on suicide watch, Claypole was soon returned to the jail's general population. He was found hours later, hanging in his cell from a noose made of torn bed sheets.

His mother sued for violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, medical malpractice and wrongful death.

U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman denied the defendants' motion for summary judgment on the Fourteenth Amendment claims for failure to protect from harm and due process violations, finding triable issues of fact as to whether Claypole was in "serious medical need" and whether the officers were aware of it.

"In the court's view, the videotape of the custodial interview is so chilling that it alone could support a jury's determination that [Detective Bryan] Kruse at least must have known that Claypole was in the midst of a mental health crisis," Freeman wrote in her 24-page ruling.

"The court concludes that there are triable issues which must be resolved by a jury as to whether the city's failure to implement more rigorous mental health screening, or to require transmission of detainees' mental health information to the next custodian, amounted to deliberate indifference."

In a separate document entering the sanctions against Bertling, the defense attorney for the California Forensic Medical Group, U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Grewal said that "attorneys are people, and people make mistakes."

"But where, as here, an attorney repeatedly and unapologetically flouts guideline after guideline, it is a big deal - and the court has little choice but to do something about it," Grewal said.

According to Grewal's ruling, Bertling - who is with Bertling and Clausen in Santa Barbara, California - repeatedly delayed the production of discovery documents requested by the plaintiffs and misbehaved during a deposition.

The plaintiffs' motion for sanctions, Grewal said, "quotes dozens of deposition excerpts that show Bertling making extremely long speaking objections, coaching witnesses, cutting off witnesses and even answering for them."

And in addition to this conduct, Grewal said, Bertling "stooped to an indefensible attack on opposing counsel."

During a deposition, after a plaintiff attorney asked Bertling not to interrupt her Bertling told her, "Don't raise your voice at me. It's not becoming of a woman," according to Grewal's ruling.

"A sexist remark is not just a professional discourtesy, although that in itself is regrettable and all too common," Grewal said. "The bigger issue is that comments like Bertling's reflect and reinforce the male-dominated attitude of our profession."

In addition to awarding the plaintiffs fees and costs for bringing their motions for sanctions as well as a portion of attorneys' fees for the deposition at issue, Grewal ordered that Bertling donate $250 to the Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles Foundation within 28 days.

Attorneys on all sides of the case - including Bertling - did not respond to emails requesting comment on Wednesday morning.

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