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Estate of Cills v. Kaftan

July 13, 2000


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Joel A. Pisano, District Judge.



Pending before the Court are motions for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure ("Fed.R.Civ.P.") 56 filed separately by defendants Cumberland County Department of Corrections ("Department") and Stephan Kaftan ("Warden Kaftan"), and the remaining known defendants, Captain Trull, *fn1 Lieutenant Butler, Sergeant Frank Jones, Corrections Officer Vandel Lee, *fn2 Corrections Officer Wharton, Juanita Nazario and Mary Ridgeway *fn3 (collectively, "Low-Level Employees"). Plaintiff filed opposition, and the Court decides the motions without oral argument pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 78. Based on the reasons set forth below, the Court denies the motion for summary judgment filed by the Department and Warden Kaftan, and grants the motion for summary judgment filed by the Low-Level Employees.


This action, filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and New Jersey common law, arises from a jail suicide. Pamela Bylone, the mother and administratrix of the estate of Michael Cills ("Cills"), an inmate who committed suicide at the Cumberland County Jail ("Jail") on September 21, 1996, prosecutes this action against the Department and a number of Department employees. The crux of the case is that the Department adopted an allegedly unconstitutional suicide policy that did not require Department employees to consult a mental health professional on the propriety of a decision to remove an inmate from suicide watch, and that certain Department employees allegedly violated Cills' constitutional rights to adequate medical care and personal security by removing him from suicide watch, despite knowing that he was likely to commit suicide. Plaintiff filed a three-count complaint *fn4 on July 14, 1998, and the Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1343.

In support of their motion for summary judgment, the Low-Level Employees argue that plaintiff has failed to set forth sufficient evidence to support a claim that they were deliberately indifferent to Cills' medical and security needs, and, thus, there was no constitutional deprivation. Plaintiff contends that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Low-Level Employees' decision to remove Cills from suicide watch was made with the knowledge that Cills was substantially likely to kill himself. The Court finds that the Low-Level Employees are entitled to summary judgment because none of these defendants acted in a manner that constitutes deliberate or reckless indifference.

The Department and Warden Kaftan move for summary judgment on the ground that plaintiff has failed to establish that any alleged constitutional violation was the result of an official custom or policy upon which municipal liability can be sustained. Plaintiff asserts that the Department's verbal suicide policy, which was created by Warden Kaftan, constitutes a policy upon which municipal liability can be based. Because the Court finds that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether the Department's suicide policy was unconstitutional, and whether Cills suffered a constitutional deprivation as a result, summary judgment in favor of the Department and Warden Kaftan is denied.


A. Cills' Incarceration

The following events precipitated this action. *fn5 On May 13, 1996, pursuant to a negotiated plea agreement, Michael Cills, a twenty year-old man, pled guilty in the New Jersey Superior Court, Law Division, to third-degree possession of Valium, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10a(1). On June 14, 1996, Cills was sentenced to sixty days in the Jail and three years of probation. *fn6 On August 21, 1996, Cills began to serve his term of incarceration. *fn7

B. The Decision to Place Cills on Suicide Watch

On August 27, 1996, Cills drank cleaning fluid and was taken to Bridgeton Hospital for medical treatment. Although Cills claimed to have mistaken the liquid for orange juice, Department employees and Cills' mother viewed the event as a suicide attempt. (Pamela Bylone Deposition ("Bylone Dep.") at 36-37). Cills had a history of depression and attempted suicide dating back to 1986 when his father was killed in a car accident. (Id. at 18). Cills had also developed substance abuse problems. (Id. at 23, 28-30, 43-44). Prior to his incarceration, Cills had received extensive outpatient psychiatric treatment and occasional inpatient treatment for his depression and suicidal tendencies. (Id. at 19, 35-36).

Juanita Nazario ("Nazario"), a social worker who was the Department's supervisor of social services, knew of Cills' troubled history through conversations with his mother and counselors who had treated him. (Juanita Nazario Deposition ("Nazario Dep.") at 119-23). Eunice Jenkins ("Jenkins"), the Department's nursing supervisor, also became aware of Cills' history since she had access to his medical and psychiatric records. (Eunice Jenkins Deposition ("Jenkins Dep.") at 30).

At some point after his return from the hospital, Department employees placed Cills on suicide watch. *fn8 (Bylone Dep. at 36-37).

C. The Department's Suicide Policy

At the time of Cills' incarceration, the Department did not have a written suicide policy, but there was a verbal policy in effect. (Stephan Kaftan Deposition ("Kaftan Dep.") at 71-72). According to Jenkins, the following suicide protocol was in effect at the Jail:

Basically I remember we had discussed the protocol that if an inmate made a statement that he would harm himself or that he would be a harm to others, the nurse that was attending to that particular patient would then notify the lieutenant, the lieutenant would notify the captain during business hours at the facility, and if not, if it was after business hours he would be notified at home via telephone or beeper.

Then a decision would be made. If a decision would be made to put an inmate on suicide watch, that inmate would then go on suicide watch.

There was paperwork involved in that that had to be signed. Okay? And that is the protocol that I remember. [Jenkins Dep. at 18-19].

If the nurse and the shift supervisor disagreed as to whether to place the inmate on suicide watch, the shift supervisor had the final decision-making authority. (Kaftan Dep. at 83-84).

Under the verbal policy, an inmate on suicide watch was: (1) segregated from the general population; (2) checked by a guard every fifteen minutes; (3) given medical treatment and counseling; (4) dispossessed of clothing and other personal belongings; (5) required to wear a paper gown; and (6) restricted from accessing the commissary and the telephone, and from having visitors. (Id. at 75-76).

If a member of the staff believed that a change in the status of an inmate on suicide watch was warranted, that status was reviewed at a senior staff meeting, which was held at least three times per week. (Id. at 79). Because there was no psychologist or psychiatrist on staff when Cills committed suicide, the only medical input with respect to an inmate's suicide status came from the nursing supervisor. *fn9 (Id. at 77-78).

Jenkins was a registered nurse whose only psychological training consisted of the standard courses that she had completed in nursing school. (Jenkins Dep. at 12). Consequently, Jenkins did not consider herself an expert in psychology or psychiatry. (Id. at 12). Nor did Nazario consider herself such an expert. (Nazario Dep. at 107-08).

Jenkins described the following procedure for removing an inmate from suicide watch: "It was my understanding that when a person was taken off of suicide watch, that they would be counseled by a psychiatric counselor. *fn10 The nurses were never to take an inmate off suicide watch without referring that person to a psychiatric person, person in the psychiatric department." (Jenkins Dep. at 20). If a member of the senior staff believed that an inmate should be removed from suicide watch, the matter would be discussed at a staff meeting. (Id. at 22; Nazario Dep. at 104). The ultimate decision was a ...

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