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Estate of Lewis v. Cumberland County

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

March 14, 2018

THE ESTATE OF ROBERT WAYNE LEWIS, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
CUMBERLAND COUNTY, CFG HEALTH SYSTEMS, LLC, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION

          JEROME B. SIMANDLE U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant CFG Health System, LLC's (“CFG”) motion for partial summary judgment. [Docket Item 38.] On December 16, 2016, Plaintiff Tammy Willson, both as the administrator of the estate of Robert Wayne Lewis and in her own right, filed a second amended complaint (“SAC”) in this Court against several defendants, alleging a variety of claims arising from the unfortunate death of Robert Wayne Lewis on October 29, 2015 in the Cumberland County Jail. [Docket Item 26.]

         CFG argues that it must be granted partial summary judgment as to Plaintiff's claims of professional negligence of medical malpractice for Plaintiff's failure to timely obtain and serve an Affidavit of Merit from a qualified affiant as required by N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-27 through -29. Plaintiff argues in response that no such affidavit is required in this case.

         The principal issue to be determined is whether New Jersey law requires an affidavit of merit to be filed in the instant case as a prerequisite to successful maintenance of the claims based on malpractice or professional negligence.

         For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that such an affidavit was not required for the claims against CFG to a certain extent. Accordingly, the Court will grant in part the relief requested by CFG and grant summary judgment to it with regard to Plaintiff's claims grounded in professional negligence premised on an alleged failure to act “properly.”

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The instant action arises out of the death of Robert Lewis on October 30, 2015, after he apparently hanged himself in the Cumberland County Jail on October 29. His mother, Ms. Willson, as administrator of Mr. Lewis's estate and in her own right, is the named plaintiff in this action.

         Mr. Lewis “was incarcerated at the Vineland Police Department on October 26, 2015” and “was discovered ‘hanging' in the shower at the Cumberland County Jail by fellow inmates” on October 29, 2015. [SAC ¶¶ 15, 18.]

         Plaintiff claims that, upon “information and belief, upon the booking of Robert Wayne Lewis into the Cumberland County Jail, ” defendant John Doe corrections officers “and representatives and/or employees of CFG[] were required to screen Mr. Lewis not only for any physical problems, but also to determine in [sic] Mr. Lewis presented a risk for any psychological problems, including suicide.” [SAC ¶ 16.] She continues: “Upon information and belief, Defendants[] John Doe Corrections Officers 1 - 10, and representatives and/or employees of Defendant CFG, failed to properly screen Robert Wayne Lewis for any suicidal tendencies, or any other psychological problems, and also failed to monitor Robert Wayne Lewis, even though they were aware of prior attempts to commit suicide by Mr. Lewis. In doing so, these defendants breached their legal duty to maintain a safe and suitable environment, and failed to keep Robert Wayne Lewis safe from injury, harm and death, thus causing Mr. Lewis's death.” Id. ¶ 19.

         Plaintiff claims that the “above-described acts and omissions by Defendants, John Doe Corrections Officers 1-10, and representatives and/or employees of CFG, demonstrated a deliberate indifference to and a conscious disregard for the psychological needs, prior suicidal history and the overall safety of Robert Wayne Lewis, of which they were aware, or should have been aware.” Id. ¶ 21.

         Plaintiff asserts four claims for relief against CFG: the fourth claim for relief, a violation of the New Jersey Civil Rights Act, N.J.S.A. 10:6-1 et seq. [SAC ¶¶ 41-44][1]; the fifth claim for relief, wrongful death [SAC ¶¶ 45-50]; the sixth claim for relief, survival action [SAC ¶¶ 51-56]; and the seventh claim for relief, negligence [SAC ¶¶ 57-60][2].

         As Plaintiff states with regard to the wrongful death, survival, and negligence claims: “Defendants owed a duty of reasonable care to Plaintiff's decedent, and to other inmates at the Cumberland County Jail, to properly screen inmates for suicidal tendencies or other psychological problems, to adequately monitor inmates, and to protect inmates from injury, harm or death at the Jail. . . . Defendants failed to use the requisite standard of care, subjecting the de[cede]nt, Robert Wayne Lewis, to the violation of his constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. . . . The Defendants['] deliberate indifference to Robert Wayne Lewis's rights caused the death of Robert Wayne Lewis.” [SAC ¶¶ 46-48.] She continues: “Defendants owed the decedent, Robert Wayne Lewis, a duty to use reasonable care in carrying out the lawful duties associated with, and required by the County jail or detention center. . . .

         Defendants breached their duties when they failed to use reasonable care, were negligent, reckless, and grossly negligent, and directly and proximately caused the death of the de[cede]nt Robert Wayne Lewis on October 29, 2015.” [SAC ¶¶ 52-53.]

         CFG filed an Answer to the SAC on December 29, 2016. [Docket Item 27.] The Answer includes separate defenses for failure to state a claim and failure to file an appropriate Affidavit of Merit (“AOM”) pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-26, et seq. “and applicable case law[.]” [Docket Item 27 at 6, 7.]

         Plaintiff did not obtain or serve an AOM on CFG on or before February 27, 2017, or before April 28, 2017. [Docket Items 39 at 5, ¶¶ 12-15; 38-2 at ¶¶ 12-15.]

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW[3]

         At summary judgment, the moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); accord Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once a properly supported motion for summary judgment is made, the burden shifts to the non-moving party, who must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986). In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court is required to examine the evidence in light most favorable to the non-moving party, and resolve all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 552 (1999); Wishkin v. Potter, 476 F.3d 180, 184 (3d Cir. 2007). Credibility determinations are not appropriate for the court to make at the summary judgment stage. Davis v. Portlines Transportes Maritime Internacional, 16 F.3d 532, 536 n.3 (3d Cir. 1994).

         Under Nuveen Mun. Trust v. WithumSmith Brown, P.C., 692 F.3d 283, 303 n.13 (3d Cir. 2012), a failure to file a timely AOM is properly the subject of “a motion for summary judgment under Rule 56”; although “the AOM Statute directs courts to dismiss actions in which a timely affidavit has not been filed for ‘failure to state claim, ' because the affidavit is not a pleading requirement, this language merely provides that the consequences of not filing a timely affidavit are the same as failing to state a claim[, ]” especially because the ...


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