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Terry v. County of Milwaukee

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

June 4, 2018



          J. P. Stadtmueller U.S. District Judge.

         Plaintiff Rebecca Terry (“Terry”) filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, complaining that her constitutional rights were violated when she was ignored while she gave birth in a cell at the Milwaukee County Jail (the “Jail”). See (Docket #1). Defendants include Milwaukee County (the “County”), several County and Jail officials, including former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke (“Clarke”), and Armor Correctional Health Services (“Armor”), a private corporation that provides healthcare services to inmates at the Jail.

         Against both the County and Armor, Terry asserts claims under Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). Monell holds that a municipal entity or a related corporate entity like Armor can be liable under Section 1983, but not simply because its employees violate the plaintiff's constitutional rights. Id. at 694.[1] Instead, a municipality can be liable for a constitutional violation only when the violation is brought about by (1) its express policy, (2) a widespread, though unwritten, custom or practice, or (3) a decision by an agent with “final policymaking authority.” Darchak v. City of Chicago Bd. of Educ, 580 F.3d 622, 629 (7th Cir. 2009).

         In this case, Terry advances a theory that the County and Armor had a widespread custom or practice of ignoring inmates' serious medical needs.[2] The County and Armor have each filed motions for judgment on the pleadings, asserting that Terry's Monell claim is overbroad and unworkable. The motions are fully briefed and, for the reasons stated below, they will be granted.[3]

         1. LEGAL STANDARD

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 12(c) permits a party to move for judgment after the complaint and answer have been filed. Buchanan-Moore v. Cnty. of Milwaukee, 570 F.3d 824, 827 (7th Cir. 2009). A motion for judgment on the pleadings is governed by the same standard as a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6). Adams v. City of Indianapolis, 742 F.3d 720, 727-28 (7th Cir. 2014). To survive a challenge under Rule 12(c) or 12(b)(6), a complaint must provide “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). In other words, the complaint must give “fair notice of what the. . .claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). The allegations must “plausibly suggest that the plaintiff has a right to relief, raising that possibility above a speculative level[.]” Kubiak v. City of Chicago, 810 F.3d 476, 480 (7th Cir. 2016) (citation omitted); Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 555 U.S. 662, 679 (2009). In reviewing the complaint, the Court is required to “accept as true all of the well-pleaded facts in the complaint and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff.” Kubiak, 810 F.3d at 480-81.

         2. RELEVANT FACTS

         The following facts are drawn from Terry's complaint. (Docket #1). The Court first recounts Terry's allegations regarding her childbirth at the Jail, then her explanation as to how that episode fits into an alleged larger pattern of medical mistreatment at the Jail.

         2.1 Terry's Childbirth at the Jail

         On March 9, 2014, Terry was arrested in Franklin, Wisconsin and taken to the Jail. She was nine months pregnant, due to give birth the next day. During booking, she began to experience labor pains and was taken to Froedtert Hospital. Two sheriff's deputies accompanied her. Hospital staff told the deputies that Terry was in labor, but that she could return to the Jail.

         The deputies returned her to the Jail and she was placed in the infirmary. Terry informed the correctional officer who was escorting her to the infirmary that, based on her prior experiences in childbirth, she believed delivery would occur that evening. Defendant Brian Wenzel (“Wenzel”), a Jail correctional officer, was working in the infirmary at that time.

         Wenzel placed Terry in an infirmary cell. The cell was extremely dirty, including a filthy sink, toilet, and floor. Soon after entering her cell, Terry began experiencing more labor pains, much more intensely and closer together than before. Terry pushed the emergency button in her cell to ask for assistance. Defendants, including Wenzel and Armor nursing staff, ignored her. This occurred despite that fact that Wenzel was at his post just yards from Terry's cell.

         Terry's condition continued to worsen, her labor pains increased, and she repeatedly cried out for help and hit the emergency button in her cell. Wenzel ignored her, and no Armor staff ever made rounds to check on her. After more than three hours in labor, alone in her cell screaming for help, Terry finally birthed her son, who emerged from the birth canal making choking sounds and blue in the face. She was terrified that her son could not breathe, and in her desperation, she reached into his throat to clear his airway herself. At this time, Wenzel finally looked into Terry's cell and called for help.

         Some Armor employees arrived. They then called emergency medical staff, who transported Terry to Sinai Hospital where she and her child received post-partum care. Eventually, Terry was returned to the Jail.

         2.2 Terry's Monell Allegations

         Terry claims that her own instance of mistreatment during childbirth fits into a larger practice whereby Jail and Armor staff routinely ignore inmates' requests for medical care or their obvious need for care. To flesh out this claim, she details in her complaint several other instances of medical mistreatment at the Jail.

         First, in 2001, Milwaukee County entered into a consent decree governing medical care at the Jail in Christensen v. Sullivan, Milwaukee County Circuit Court No. 1996-CV-1835. The consent decree identified several requirements for the Jail, including requirements related to women's health and medical emergencies.[4] Under the consent decree, Dr. Ronald Shansky (“Shansky”) was appointed as the Medical Monitor of the Jail and has published reports documenting deficiencies in medical care at the Jail.

         In the years leading up to Terry's experience, Shansky has repeatedly reported inadequate medical and correctional staffing at the Jail. He frequently explained that as a result of inadequate staffing and inadequate monitoring of inmate medical needs, inmates do not receive the care they need and suffer severe delays in receiving care. Shansky has also opined that correctional officers choose to ignore symptoms reported by inmates, causing a further breakdown in the provision of medical care.

         Despite his admonitions, the Jail has failed to comply with Shansky's recommendations. According to Terry, Shansky's reports put Defendants on notice about a pattern of inadequate care and staffing at the Jail. Sixteen years after it was originally entered, the consent decree remains in force because, according to Terry, the Jail is not in substantial compliance with its provisions.

         In addition to Shansky's findings, a pattern of medical emergencies and deaths at the Jail also demonstrates, in Terry's view, Defendants' indifference to inmate medical needs. On March 3, 2009, Virgilio Jimenez (“Jimenez”) died in his cell at the Milwaukee House of Correction, which was then under the supervision of Clarke. According to the policy in place at the time, correctional officers were required to check on inmates every thirty minutes. However, despite the fact that Jimenez missed breakfast and did not get out of bed earlier that morning during a search, correctional officers failed to conduct the required check-ins. Jimenez's body was discovered in his cell later that morning, more than six hours after he was last seen alive.

         Terry's other cited instances of alleged neglect occurred at the Jail itself. In April 2009, Corey Kleser, an inmate at the Jail and a Type I diabetic, was denied proper medical care, including insulin, for a period of more than three months. In October 2009, Robert Schmidt was detained at the Jail and denied medical care, including his prescribed medication for a blood disorder, for more than ten days, causing a severe and painful blood clot.

         In January 2011, Antonio Cowser (“Cowser”) was booked into the Jail and told correctional officers he was suicidal. Despite his clear medical needs, Cowser received no treatment for his suicidal ideation. Over the course of thirteen days, he committed suicide by starving and dehydrating himself, and no correctional officer or medical staff intervened. Also in 2011, Paul Heytens (“Heytens”) committed suicide in his cell at the Jail after he was denied his prescribed psychotropic medication and correctional officers failed to monitor his activities. Despite rules requiring correctional officers to conduct thirty-minute checks on inmates, Heytens' body was not found for more than eleven hours after he hanged himself.[5]

         Terry then turns to instances of claimed mistreatment occurring after her experience in March 2014. In October of that year, inmate Kwame Moore (“Moore”) suffered intense sudden pain in his groin, consistent with testicular torsion. Moore complained to Jail and Armor staff about the debilitating pain. They refused his requests for medical care. By the time Moore received care the following day, it was necessary to remove the affected testicle.

         In April 2016, Terrill Thomas (“Thomas”) was detained at the Jail. He suffered from bipolar disorder. For reasons Terry does not explain, correctional officers shut off water to Thomas' cell. He died in his cell seven days later as a result of dehydration.

         In July 2016, Shade Swayzer (“Swayzer”) was detained at the Jail at a time when she was nearly nine months pregnant. Like Terry, Swayzer went into labor at the Jail and was denied medical care. Swayzer's daughter did not survive the ordeal and died shortly after her birth at the Jail.

         In August 2016, Kristin Fiebrink (“Fiebrink”) was detained at the Jail having recently used heroin and alcohol. On the night of August 27, 2016, Fiebrink screamed for help in her cell, but correctional officers ignored her pleas. She was found dead the following morning, but Terry does not give the cause of death. Presumably, it resulted from withdrawal symptoms.

         Finally, in October 2016, Michael Madden (“Madden”) was detained at the Jail. He suffered from a heart condition and heroin addiction. While in custody, he suffered a seizure that rendered him unconscious, but correctional officers failed to provide him medical care. They instead picked Madden up and dropped him on his head. He died later that evening.

         In Terry's view, these injuries and deaths “did not occur in isolation from each other. The County of Milwaukee and Armor Correctional Health Services have consistently failed to provide adequate medical care for the detainees at the jail.” (Docket #1 ¶ 68). Terry claims that each occurrence, coupled with Shansky's repeated pleas for reform of Jail medical practices, put Defendants on notice of an ongoing, serious problem with medical care at the Jail. Specifically,

[b]y March 2014, Defendant Clarke was on notice of a widespread practice at the Milwaukee County Jail of ignoring the serious medical needs of detainees like [Terry], thereby exposing them to unreasonable risks of harm. In the Milwaukee County Jail detainees with clear symptoms of serious medical illness, injury, or conditions who ...

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