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DeJesus v. State

United States District Court, D. Delaware

November 8, 2019

THE STATE OF DELAWARE, et. al., Defendants.

          Daniel C. Herr, LAW OFFICE OF DANIEL C. HERR LLC, Wilmington, Delaware Counsel for Plaintiffs.

          Joseph C. Handlon, Ryan P. Cornell, DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Wilmington, Delaware Counsel for Defendants.




         Defendants Todd Drace, John Kirlin, and Tiffani Starkey have moved for summary judgment on Plaintiffs' claim for damages brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. D.I. 57. Defendants are correctional officers who worked in the segregated housing unit ("SHU") of the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center the day Blaise DeJesus committed suicide in an SHU cell. Plaintiffs, the parents of DeJesus, base their § 1983 claim on alleged violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. For the reasons discussed below, I will grant Defendants' motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Relevant Facts

         On August 1, 2014, DeJesus was convicted of violating the terms of his probation. D.I. 58 at 3. Based on his previous heroin use, he was sentenced to complete the CREST Substance Abuse Program and was immediately committed to the Central Violation Probation Center to await transfer to the CREST program. D.I. 1 ¶¶ 13-15. When DeJesus exhibited withdrawal symptoms at the probation center, he was transferred to Vaughn's infirmary for treatment. Id. ¶¶ 16-17. At the infirmary, medical professionals treated DeJesus for four days before discharging him on August 5, 2014. Id. ¶¶ 18-20. Upon his release, an order was placed to transfer DeJesus to Vaughn's general inmate housing. Id. ¶ 21. But when it was discovered that DeJesus's brother worked at Vaughn, DeJesus was instead transferred to the SHU to separate him from other prisoners for safety reasons. Id. ¶¶ 23-24.

         Officer Drace escorted DeJesus to his single cell in the SHU at around 3:30 p.m. on August 5, 2014. D.I. 59 at A-29. A few hours later, DeJesus hung himself in his cell. D.I. 1 ¶ 43. Prison staff found DeJesus's body at 9:35 p.m. D.I. 63 Ex. A; D.I. 59 at A-34 ¶ 7. DeJesus was pronounced dead at 10:05 p.m. D.I. 63 Ex. A.

         The parties agree that DeJesus interacted with Defendants during his brief time in the SHU. The parties very much dispute, however, the extent and nature of those interactions.

         In their opposition to Defendants' summary judgment motion, Plaintiffs rely on the deposition testimony of four witnesses who were incarcerated in the SHU on the day of DeJesus's suicide. That testimony is conflicting, but viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, at least one inmate witness testified that DeJesus told Officers Starkey and Kirlin that he did not belong in the SHU, D.I. 61 Ex. B at 8:15, Ex. E at 14:15-16; D.I. 59 at A-34 ¶ 2, that he could not "take being in the [SHU]," D.I. 61 Ex. D at 6:8-9, Ex. F at 5, that he wanted to speak to someone, id. Ex. E at 13:12-13, 14:3-5, Ex. B at 8:13-14, Ex. D at 5:21, 8:4, that he needed to make a phone call, id. Ex. E at 6:11-13, 13:11-12, Ex. C at 6:6-7, 16:5, that he "wasn't in his right state of mind," id. Ex. B at 6:13-14, that he felt sick and was "not right," id. Ex. B at 10:12-13, that he was feeling anxious, id. Ex. B at 14:2-5, and that he was going through withdrawals, id. Ex. B at 8:16-24. One of the inmate witnesses testified that he "think[s]" but is "not... sure" that DeJesus told Officer Drace "to call mental health or something like that," id. Ex. C at 14:19-23, 15:13-23, and that DeJesus told Officer Starkey "[s]omething about the mental health," id. Ex. C at 17:6-7. One of the inmate witnesses testified that Officers Starkey and Kirlin "kept brushing [DeJesus] off." Id. Ex. B at 6:15. Another inmate similarly testified that those officers "blew [DeJesus] off." Id. Ex. D at 16:2-4. One of the inmate witnesses testified that DeJesus cried during a discussion with Officer Starkey and that Officers Starkey and Kirlin laughed about the discussion. Id. Ex. E at 10:17-20, 12:4-21. Finally, an inmate witness testified that DeJesus looked "disheveled." Id. Ex. B at 5:7.

         Officer Drace recalled nothing notable about DeJesus in his interactions with him. Drace observed that DeJesus's posture was "just more head down," but Drace did not recall any crying or weeping on DeJesus's part. D.I. 59 at A-31. Officer Starkey testified that, while in the SHU, DeJesus mentioned "something about not belonging in this cell" but she noted that "[n]othing seemed off with him." Id. at A-34 ¶¶ 2-3. She also stated that DeJesus did not express any thoughts of suicide or self-harm. Id. at A-34 ¶ 3. Finally, Officer Kirlin stated that nothing about DeJesus's behavior suggested to him "that he posed a suicide risk." Id. at A-35¶4.

         Staff at Vaughn performed an investigation into the circumstances regarding DeJesus's suicide. See D.I. 61 Ex. F at 1. An official memorandum describing the investigation stated that area checks and phone punches[1] had not been completed on A-tier (the tier on which DeJesus was located) for two and a half hours the evening of DeJesus's suicide. Id. Officer Kirlin was suspended for three days because of his failure to ensure that the area checks and punches were performed that night. Id. SHU inmates testified that Officer Kirlin often failed to conduct the required checks. Id. Ex. E at 22:4-23:17, Ex. B at 7:22-8:9, Ex. C at 9:6-7, Ex. F at 5.

         B. ...

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