Braillard v. Maricopa County (CA2 5/27/10)

We respect lawyers and judges. Its unfortunate when an opinion might make it seem that they were all in over their heads.

Plaintiff’s mother died as a result of not being given insulin for her diabetes while in jail. She sued the County, the Sheriff, the sheriff’s office, and various employees for wrongful death and §1983 violations. The trial court granted summary judgment on some claims and denied it on others. The opinion’s introductory explanation of that is as confusing as anything you’re likely to read; after reading the rest of the opinion, the impression is that the reader isn’t the only one confused. The summary judgment had 54b language and both sides appealed (when summary judgment goes up a denial can go up, too, the court points out in passing).

The opinion spends pages detailing the facts of the mother’s incarceration, her sufferings, her jailers’ callousness, and her pitiable lamentations. The excuse is that the court will find, some pages further on, that certain evidence was sufficient to go to a jury, although to reach that conclusion the court will cite still more evidence. But at this point only the brain-dead don’t know where this opinion is going. First, though, are some legal hurdles.

The MCSO argued that it isn’t an entity subject to suit. (A “nonjural entity,” the court calls it; when judges start throwing around arcane jargon as if they use it every day its an even bet they’ve never heard it before.) You can’t sue a government entity unless a statute says you can. No statute says you can sue a Sheriff’s office. For some reason, the court appears to think this a novel issue.

Defendants also argued that Plaintiff had no standing to bring a §1983 claim in her own capacity. The trial court had denied summary judgment on this. Plaintiff argued that she had a familial liberty interest, i.e, a constitutional right to associate with her parent. The Court of Appeals followed the majority federal rule that this doesn’t apply unless the state action was aimed specifically at interfering with that relationship. It granted defendants summary judgment (then apologized to Plaintiff for it in a footnote).

(In its introduction, the court had referred to this as “a wrongful death claim pursuant to §1983.” No, a wrongful death claim is pursuant to 12-611, which the court doesn’t mention. The court means “a claim that letting her mother die violated her civil rights.” A little thing? No again. Wrongful death is a term of art and appellate opinions are supposed to use terms of art artfully.)

A prisoner can sue under §1983 when jailers are “deliberately indifferent” to his medical needs. Plaintiff brought such a claim on behalf of her dead mother. After reviewing some more evidence the opinion decides that there was enough to get the claim to a jury against individual jailers, the Sheriff, and the County. Vicarious liability doesn’t apply in §1983 cases so the latter two could be “deliberately indifferent” because the Department of Justice had criticized jail medical care and they hadn’t, allegedly, done enough about it.

The next question was what the damages can include. The trial court granted summary judgment against Plaintiff’s claims for punitive damages and for her mother’s pain and suffering. Federal civil rights law depends on state law for damages if, the court says, it is consistent with the meaning and purpose of federal law.

The punitive damages claims were made against the individual jailers (case law says they aren’t available against government entities and officials).  Arizona government employees aren’t liable for punitive damages under 12-820.04. But the court decided that §1983 is, in part, about deterrence and that the statute isn’t consistent with that since Plaintiff was “likely” to get only “modest” compensatory damages. (It notes that she wasn’t even seeking economic damages, as if that were an innocent circumstance and not a strategic decision.) So the court reverses the denial of punitive damages. Not only does the statute not apply but the standard for punitives is apparently “reckless or callous indifference,” not evil mind.

As to Plaintiff’s claim for her mother’s pain and suffering, under state law that obviously wouldn’t survive. But “[t]here is no Arizona case deciding this issue where the constitutional violation asserted was the cause of the victim’s death.” Applying state law would, the court concludes, “defeat the remedial and deterrent functions of §1983.” This because compensatory damages are minimal and the jury might not award punitives.

You may be able to wrap your head around these conclusions but our advice is that you’d just hurt yourself. The court does not explain how Arizona law would defeat “remedial and deterrent functions” when our courts have said repeatedly that Arizona tort law has, among others, remedial and deterrent functions. Forgive us for being a bit dubious about the supposed preemptiveness of remedial and deterrent functions of a federal statute that doesn’t bother to provide for remediation and deterrence, leaving damages to the states. You may wonder, too, how those purported purposes can create standards for survival and punitive damages. Penumbras from emanations, presumably. Courts can scotch the idea of federal common law but obviously not kill it, even in their own minds. And how is a constitutional violation a cause of death? Did someone beat mom to death with an invalid warrant? This court had waded into seriously deep confusion.

But we’ll cut it some slack, having just said (before reading this opinion) that the process is assisted by collective wisdom. Defendants must not have had any to contribute since they didn’t brief the punitive and pain-and-suffering issues.

What were they doing instead? Arguing that the trial court should have granted summary judgment because the mother’s failure to tell her jailers that she had diabetes was an intervening/superseding cause of her death. Yes, you read that right. They didn’t brief important issues of law but took the time to make a howler of an argument that lost below and that a first-year law student should have told them would lose anywhere.

They also appealed some discovery rulings. An interesting procedural and jurisdictional situation, appealing discovery rulings in connection with the appeal of failure to grant summary judgment in response to the appeal of the grant of summary judgment. The court doesn’t mention it. It isn’t surprising for our courts, so quick to include boilerplate discussion of jurisdiction when it isn’t noteworthy, to ignore it when it is. Boilerplate is pretense of thought, not proof of it. In any event, the court reversed some of the rulings and upheld others.