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Stechauner v. Murphy

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

March 25, 2019




         Pro se plaintiff Matthew Stechauner is an inmate at Oshkosh Correctional Institution (OCI). He alleges that defendant Gary Neau, a correctional sergeant, ignored his threats of self-harm and allowed him to attempt suicide, and that defendants Patrick Murphy, Philip Wheatley, Troy Sheide, and Dorrie Hansen, all medical personnel at the prison, failed to treat his various physical and mental health issues. He brings claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violation of his rights under the Eighth Amendment.

         Both sides move for summary judgment. Dkt. 69 and Dkt. 79. I will deny Stechauner's motion and grant defendants' motion in part. There is a genuine dispute regarding whether Stechauner told Neau that he was suicidal and whether Neau ignored that statement. This dispute will need to be resolved by a jury. But as for Stechauner's claims against the medical staff at OCI, the undisputed facts show that defendants Murphy, Wheatley, Sheide, and Hansen attended to, and provided extensive treatment for, Stechauner's various physical and mental health problems. Although Stechauner disagrees with some of their treatment decisions, no reasonable jury could conclude that these defendants were deliberately indifferent. So I will grant summary judgment for defendants on Stechauner's claims against medical personnel.

         Also before me is Stechauner's motion for leave to file a reply in support of additional proposed findings of fact, Dkt. 97, and renewed motion for assistance in recruiting counsel, Dkt. 99. I will deny both motions. The additional proposed findings of fact are outside the scope of this lawsuit, so I have not considered them. And I will deny Stechauner's request for assistance in recruiting counsel because I am not persuaded that Stechauner will be unable to try the case himself.


         A. Motions for summary judgment

         1. Scope of claims

         In my screening order, Dkt. 31, I granted Stechauner leave to proceed on the following claims under the Eighth Amendment:

• a deliberate indifference claim against Neau for ignoring Stechauner's suicide threats at 11:30 a.m. on September 10, 2016;
• three deliberate indifference claims against Murphy for failing to treat Stechauner from November 2015 to March 2016, during May 2016, and during September 2016;
• a deliberate indifference claim against Sheide for refusing to refer Stechauner to a psychiatrist;
• a deliberate indifference claim against Hansen for delaying medical care after screening a health-service request that Stechauner filed on October 24, 2016; and
• two deliberate indifference claims against Wheatley for failing to treat Stechauner in November and December 2016, and for failing to treat Stechauner's paralyzed vocal cord in spring 2017.

         I will consider only the above-listed claims. In Stechauner's combined brief in reply in support of summary judgment and in opposition to defendants' motion for summary judgment, Dkt. 89, Stechauner raises for the first time a new claim against Wheatley for denying a surgery to treat acid reflux in July 2018. It is too late for him to add this claim to the case. See Anderson v. Donahoe, 699 F.3d 989, 997 (7th Cir. 2012) (“[A] plaintiff may not amend his complaint through arguments in his brief in opposition to a motion for summary judgment.”). I have not considered this claim, nor any other potential claims that are outside the scope of Stechauner's amended complaint and my screening order. Because Stechauner's additional proposed findings of fact, Dkt. 92, relate only to this new claim, I have not considered any of the materials submitted as exhibits to Stechauner's additional proposed findings of fact, nor have I considered his reply in support of his additional proposed findings of fact. Dkt. 98.

         I will address Stechauner's claim against Neau first, followed by his claims against the medical defendants.

         2. Claim against Neau for deliberate indifference to threats of suicide

         Stechauner contends that defendant Gary Neau, a sergeant at OCI, was deliberately indifferent to his threats of suicide on September 10, 2016. Correctional officers are required to take reasonable measures to ensure the safety of suicidal inmates, and failure to do so can constitute deliberate indifference in violation of the Eighth Amendment. See, e.g., Sanville v. McCaughtry, 266 F.3d 724, 733 (7th Cir. 2001). “Deliberate indifference to a risk of suicide is present when an official is subjectively ‘aware of the significant likelihood that an inmate may imminently seek to take his own life' yet ‘fail[s] to take reasonable steps to prevent the inmate from performing the act.'” Pittman ex rel. Hamilton v. County of Madison, Illinois, 746 F.3d 766, 775-76 (7th Cir. 2014) (alteration in original) (quoting Collins v. Seeman, 462 F.3d 757, 761 (7th Cir. 2006)).

         In this case, the parties give conflicting accounts about what happened on September 10. See Dkt. 22, ¶ 22 and Dkt. 96, ¶¶ 21-26. Stechauner says that he had a conversation with Neau at 11:30 a.m. and told him that he was suffering from a cough, chest pains, and anxiety attacks, and that these medical problems made him feel suicidal. He says that Neau ignored these comments and walked away, but came back to his cell at 12:30 p.m. to check on him. By that point, Stechauner had already tied a bedsheet around his neck. He then swallowed three screws in front of Neau.[2]

         Neau, on the other hand, says that he cannot remember having a conversation with Stechauner on the morning of September 10. But he says if an inmate told him that he was suicidal, he would have called for help immediately. According to Neau, it was other staff members who notified him at 12:30 that Stechauner had screws in his cell and a bedsheet tied around his neck. He says that he immediately contacted his supervisor after getting the news.

         This dispute cannot be resolved at summary judgment. If a jury were to believe Stechauner's version of events, it could conclude that Neau was deliberately indifferent. The court of appeals has repeatedly held that statements from a prisoner that he is going to kill or seriously harm himself are sufficient to put prison staff on notice of a strong likelihood that that prisoner will engage in self harm. Miller v. Harbaugh, 698 F.3d 956, 962-63 (7th Cir. 2012). If Stechauner told Neau that he felt suicidal, “that alone should have been enough to impute awareness of a substantial risk of suicide.” Sanville, 266 F.3d at 737-38 (internal quotations omitted).

         Defendants nonetheless argue that no jury could find that Neau ignored Stechauner's statements, because Stechauner says that Neau returned to his cell one hour later. But that still means that Neau did ignore the risk that Stechauner would attempt suicide during that hour. And it was during that hour that Stechauner allegedly tied a sheet around his neck. It's true that Stechauner says he did not finish his suicide attempt until after Neau returned to his cell, but as defendants concede, even a risk of harm can constitute an actionable harm under the Eighth Amendment. Dkt. 80, at 23-24. The fact that Stechauner did not attempt suicide as soon as Neau walked away is not a reason to grant summary judgment.

         Alternatively, defendants contend that they are entitled to summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. But defendants develop no real argument in favor of applying the doctrine to Stechauner's claim against Neau. And the rule that prison officials must take threats of suicide seriously has long been clearly established. E.g. Hall v. Ryan, 957 F.2d 402, 404-05 (7th Cir. 1992) (“It was clearly established in 1986 that police officers could not be deliberately indifferent to a detainee who is in need of medical attention because of a mental illness or who is a substantial suicide risk.”). If Neau was aware that Stechauner was suicidal, as Stechauner alleges, then his actions would fall within this clearly established law. So I will not grant summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds either.

         At the same time, I will also deny Stechauner's motion for summary judgment. If a jury were to believe Neau's version of events, rather than Stechauner's, then Neau was not aware of the risk of self-harm and therefore cannot be held liable. It all comes down to which party is more credible, and credibility determinations are a job for the jury. See Miller v. Gonzalez, 761 F.3d 822, 827 (7th Cir. 2014).

         3. Claims against medical staff for denial of treatment

         The rest of Stechauner's claims are against medical staff at OCI for denial of medical treatment. To succeed on these claims, Stechauner must prove two elements: (1) he had a serious medical need; and (2) defendants were deliberately indifferent to that medical need. See Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 103-04 (1976).

         Stechauner seems to believe that defendants are entitled to summary judgment only if they can show that he lacks evidence for both elements of his claims. Dkt. 89, at 36. But Stechauner has it backwards. As the plaintiff, he has the burden of proof. If he fails to provide evidence in support of either one of the required elements, then I may enter summary judgment against him. See Santaella v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 123 F.3d 456, 461 (7th Cir. 1997); Mid Am. Title Co. v. Kirk, 59 F.3d 719, 721 (7th Cir. 1995). Because Stechauner cannot meet his burden to prove that each defendant was deliberately indifferent, defendants are entitled to summary judgment regardless of whether Stechauner actually had a serious medical need.

         A defendant is deliberately indifferent to a medical need if he or she knows of the need and disregards it. Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994). When, as here, the plaintiff challenges decisions made by medical professionals, then the plaintiff must show more than a mere disagreement with a defendant's treatment decisions. “There is not one ‘proper' way to practice medicine in a prison, but rather a range of acceptable courses based on prevailing standards in the field.” Jackson v. Kotter, 541 F.3d 688, 697 (7th Cir. 2008). A treatment decision constitutes deliberate indifference only if it is “blatantly inappropriate, ” Pyles v. Fahim, 771 F.3d 403, 411 (7th Cir. 2014), or “‘such a substantial departure from accepted professional judgment, practice, or standards as to demonstrate that the person responsible did not base the decision on [medical] judgment.'” Petties v. Carter, 836 F.3d 722, 729 (7th Cir. 2016), as amended (Aug. 25, 2016) (quoting Cole v. Fromm, 94 F.3d 254, 261-62 (7th Cir. 1996)). Inadvertent error, negligence, gross negligence, and ordinary malpractice are not cruel and unusual punishment within the meaning of the Eighth Amendment. Vance v. Peters, 97 F.3d 987, 992 (7th Cir. 1996).

         With these standards in mind, I will consider Stechauner's claims against each medical defendant.

         a. Claims against Murphy

         Defendant Patrick Murphy was Stechauner's primary care provider from November 2015 to November 2016. I allowed Stechauner to proceed on three claims against Murphy: (1) Murphy ignored Stechauner's complaints of congestion, coughing, and chest pain from November 2015 to March 2016; (2) Murphy failed to examine Stechauner on May 10, 11, and 12, 2016, even after other medical staff warned him about ...

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