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Santa Clara County to face some claims in suit over jail suicide

But the family of the man who died have their work cut out for them to take the county to trial.

SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) — A federal judge has ruled Santa Clara County can't duck all claims in a lawsuit claiming a former sheriff and a jail therapist bear responsibility for a man's suicide while in jail.

U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman on Monday advanced some claims against Santa Clara county officials in a wrongful death suit brought by the family of a man who took his own life after one day in jail.

In their July 2022 lawsuit, the family of Frederick Inea Regal claim Regal’s death was the result of “deliberate indifference” by officials as to his mental health needs. 

San Jose police officers arrested Regal in July 2020 after the man said he was under the influence of a substance and asked to speak to a psychiatrist. A medical health intake assessment documented Regal’s history of mood swings and depression and that he was thinking about suicide. Regal was placed alone in a cell with bed linens and an upper bunk out of deputies’ view, without any video or audio monitoring.

The county says Regal was checked every 15 minutes as a precaution against suicide. One of the checks was performed by Consuelo Garcia, a licensed marriage and family therapist who reported Regal saying, “Yes I’m suicidal,” “I’m depressed” and “Personal things are going on in my life.” About one hour later, a correctional officer found Regal hanging from a bed sheet attached to the upper bunk in his cell. Regal was transported to the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center and placed on life support until he died on Aug. 5, 2020.

The plaintiffs, Regal’s three children, say the county knew the suicide risks posed by isolating inmates and housing them in cells containing hanging points with insufficient monitoring. 

A 2016 report informed the county that the risk of jail suicides could be reduced by avoiding these factors and ensuring that metal bunk beds are bolted to the wall. The report also recommended that inmates who express suicidal ideation should be observed by staff every 10 minutes, and those who are actively suicidal should be observed without interruption.

Regal’s children sued, claiming violation of their father's federal constitutional rights and violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. They claim that their father’s death resulted from deliberate indifference to his medical and mental health needs by Santa Clara County, Garcia and disgraced former Sheriff Laurie Smith.

In the motion to dismiss filed this past September, the county argued “mere lack of due care by a state official does not deprive an individual of life, liberty, or property under the 14th Amendment,” and a plaintiff asserting a deliberate indifference claim “must prove more than negligence.” 

The county argued Garcia and Smith are entitled to qualified immunity “because their alleged conduct did not violate clearly established law.” They say the plaintiffs must identify Supreme Court or Ninth Circuit precedents that a jail mental health worker or supervisor violates the Constitution if they order staff to monitor an inmate in crisis every 15 minutes.

“Garcia exercised her own professional judgment and adhered to the operative county policy — which at the time of Mr. Regal’s intake, called for inmates who were not ‘actively suicidal but express[ing] suicidal ideation’ to be placed under ‘close observation’ at ‘staggered intervals not to exceed every 15 minutes,’ the county said in its motion. 

“There is no question that Mr. Regal’s death is a tragedy. But even assuming plaintiffs’ account of the events leading to his death is true, it is equally clear that as a matter of law, defendants are not liable for his death.”

In a 12-page ruling, Judge Freeman, a Barack Obama appointee, said she can't make an immunity finding until the record is clearer on how the detainee's placement in his cell connects to indifference claims.

If the county did place Regal alone in a cell under such conditions after he said that he was suicidal, “this case may be ‘the rare obvious case, where the unlawfulness of the officer’s conduct is sufficiently clear even though existing precedent does not address similar circumstances,'" Freeman wrote.

But she noted the plaintiffs have not adequately argued elements of the deliberate indifference claim against either Garcia or Smith and dismissed those claims with leave to amend. She said it is not clear whether Garcia made the decision to house Regal under those conditions or had the authority to move Regal to another cell or change the conditions or safeguards after he said he was suicidal.

And while Freeman said the county’s characterization of the plaintiffs’ claim is “too narrow,” she also called the plaintiffs' claims regarding Smith’s conduct “somewhat muddled.” 

The family offered no facts to show Smith was personally involved in Regal’s housing assignment or even aware of his existence, Freeman said. “It is unclear what plaintiffs mean when they say that Smith failed 'to implement a system of checks,'” she wrote, adding the family needs to show there was no policy governing checks on inmates or that the deficient policy attributable to Smith caused Garcia or other to “make decisions that allegedly resulted in Regal’s suicide.”

Freeman dismissed several other claims regarding the policy the family claims led to Regal’s death with leave to amend. She agreed with the county that the plaintiffs did not adequately identify what policies they claim led to Regal’s death, and she cannot discern whether Garcia acted in compliance with said policies.

And she dismissed without leave to amend a claim that Regal was denied reasonable accommodation, saying the county does not dispute that Regal was disabled but there are no facts suggesting that he was denied treatment because of his disability. 

Attorneys for both sides did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.

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