Jail Suicide Claims Stick to Monterey, For Now

     SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) – The mother of a mentally ill 20-year-old man who hanged himself in a Monterey County jail cell can advance her case against both the city and county, a federal judge ruled.
     Silvia Guersenzvaig sued the Monterey, its police chief Philip Penko and officer Brent Hall, Monterey County, Sheriff Scott Miller and Sergeant E. Kaye and several other entities and individuals in federal court, for their involvement with her son Joshua Claypole in the days before his suicide.
     Guersenzvaig says she raised Joshua in Big Sur, and that he began struggling with anxiety and bipolar disorders in high school. Joshua saw many therapists and doctors, including professionals at defendant Community Hospital of Monterey Peninsula, the complaint states.
     A day later, officers in defendant San Mateo County arrested Joshua for suspicion of driving under the influence and impounded his car. He was booked into county jail in Redwood City, where staff took his medical history and prescribed him three drugs to treat his mental state. They released him hours later.
     The next day, Joshua returned to another outpatient behavioral health clinic in Monterey that had treated him. Staff called police and he was ordered to leave – a scene that was repeated the following morning.
     After being refused help, Guersenzvaig says Joshua ended up at a local Wells Fargo Bank branch. She says that bank staff noticed that Joshua “displayed mood changes, made strange movements with his head, and exhibited other unusual behavior” while he withdrew money.
     After leaving the bank, Joshua caught a cab – and fatally stabbed the driver, Daniel Garcia Huerta.
     Officers from the Seaside Police Department arrived and took custody of Joshua for a short time, before releasing him to defendant Hall with the Monterey Police Department. Guersenzvaig claims that Joshua asked Hall questions like, “Can you ask for lethal injections?” and “Is my mom going to get my remains?”
     Joshua also told Hall that he “had to do it.” Bu no one informed the Monterey County Sheriff’s Department that Joshua was acting unusually when they took custody of the young man, according to the complaint.
     Later that evening, Joshua’s defense attorney met with him and requested that he be placed on suicide watch. But the intake officer never checked the required box indicating that Joshua posed a danger to himself or others, Guersenzvaig says.
     In fact, the mother claims that an intake screening questionnaire completed that night indicated that Joshua had not shown any bizarre behavior and that he had not been under psychiatric care. Nor did it appear that he had been given any medical screening at all, and he was not placed on a suicide watch per his attorney’s request.
     Two days later, Joshua made his first court appearance and said he believed people were speaking to him telepathically. Officers at the jail finally put him on suicide watch, only to remove him from the safety cell 16 hours later.
     Meanwhile, Guersenzvaig arrived to visit him and bring him his medication. Jail staff turned her away because it was not visiting hours, and never delivered the medication to Joshua.
     And, according to the jail’s hourly safety check log, no one checked on Joshua for six hours. When someone finally did, they found him hanging from a noose made of torn bed sheets that had been attached to a metal wall brace.
     But rather than open the cell and cut Joshua down, the officer requested and waited for backup. Joshua was taken by helicopter to a hospital in San Jose, where he was pronounced dead.
     Inside Joshua’s cell, officers found a handwritten note that said, “I love you mama. I’m sorry for all the pain I have brought you mama. I love you very much. Maybe I will see you again. Love, Joshua.”
     The city and county of Monterey lobbied for dismissal of all Guersenzvaig’s claims, denying that they had a role in Joshua’s death. In the case of the city, Penko and Hall, all denied that had acted with deliberate indifference or had denied Joshua due process – both violations of the Fourteenth Amendment.
     But U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman found that – contrary to the city defendants’ claims that they had no duty to Joshua because they transferred him to Monterey County – the possibility existed that at least Officer Hall knew of Joshua’s mental state and did not request a medical assessment or even inform the county officers of his condition.
     “Plaintiff plausibly alleges that the harm to Claypole – his suicide three days later – was caused, at least in part, by the city defendants’ failure to provide medical care and failure to advise the Monterey County Jail staff of Claypole’s suicidal statements and bizarre behavior while in city custody,” Freeman wrote, while simultaneously denying the city’s argument that by taking Joshua off suicide watch, Monterey County caused the death.
     “The gist of the city defendants’ argument is that they were entitled to expect the county to undertake any necessary precautions or treatment with respect to Claypole’s mental health; the county did take such precautions; and the city could not have foreseen – and cannot be held responsible for – the county’s decisions to place Claypole on and then remove him from suicide watch. However, plaintiff alleges that when Claypole arrived at the jail he was given only a cursory mental health screening, which resulted in check-box determinations that he was not a danger to himself and had no history of psychiatric treatment. The county did not place Claypole on suicide watch until he had been at the jail for two days. Had Hall informed the county that Claypole was suicidal, the county may well have performed a more thorough mental health evaluation upon intake, medicated Claypole, and/or maintained the suicide watch for a longer period of time. Accordingly, the court cannot conclude as a matter of law that the county’s conduct constituted a superseding cause that cuts off any potential liability on the part of the city defendants,” Freeman wrote.
     The judge denied the supervisor liability claim against Penko, however, since Guersenzvaig failed to show he knew anything about the situation.
     As to the county defendants, which had moved to dismiss claims for professional negligence, failing to provide medical care, negligent supervision and wrongful death, Freeman agreed that none of them can be sued for what is essentially medical malpractice.
     But the county also argued that it had in fact furnished medical care to Joshua, in the form of an intake screening.
     “To the extent that the county defendants rely on allegations regarding medical screening administered to Claypole after Kaye was informed of Claypole’s suicidal ideation, it is unclear from the record whether that screening was given by medical personnel or whether initiating the screening constituted ‘reasonable action to summon’ medical care,” Freeman wrote. “To the extent that the county defendants rely on allegations regarding the care given after Claypole was discovered hanging in his cell, it is unclear from the record whether Gordano’s decision to wait for backup before cutting Claypole down constituted ‘reasonable’ action. While the county defendants ultimately may be able to prove that they are not subject to liability, it would be inappropriate to make that factual determination at the pleading stage.”
     In light of this, the judge also declined to dismiss the negligent supervision and wrongful death actions against the county defendants.
     Guersenzvaig has until Oct. 28 to fix the deficiencies in her complaint.

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