Clem v. Pinal County (D2 5.10.21)

Clem’s son Skyler died from morphine intoxication while in custody at the Pinal County Jail. His mother filed suit in state court against Pinal County and its Sheriff, and then a year later filed a second lawsuit under § 1983 naming individual detention officers. Plaintiff moved to consolidate the two cases but before this occurred, the individual defendants in the second case removed the second lawsuit to federal court. The federal court action moved a little quicker, and after the case was narrowed against only one defendant corrections officer. The federal court ruled as to that defendant there was no constitutional tort claim, no causation, and qualified immunity applied. The federal court dismissed the case. The defendants in case number one then asked for a dismissal in the first state law case arguing res judicata and issue preclusion. First, on res judicata, the court held there was no privity between the individual officers with the County and its Sheriff. This is so because the individuals were sued in their individual capacity under § 1983; they are individually responsible for damages; there is no respondeat superior liability in constitutional tort claims; and individuals, unlike the entity defendants, are entitled to assert qualified immunity. Qualified immunity was a basis for the ruling; therefore, no privity and res judicata cannot apply. The court of appeals then moved to issue preclusion. Issue preclusion does not require privity but requires identity of issues, actual litigation, full and fair opportunity to litigate, and the issue must have been necessarily decided. Part of the federal court ruling was the one remaining individual defendant did not cause the death. Here, the causation issue overlapped and as to that ruling, any state law claim based on that individual defendant’s actions (failure to check on Skyler’s wellbeing) the defendants are entitled to issue preclusion. Since the federal court did not address the actions of other corrections officers on state law claims, however, those claims can continue. The opinion is well reasoned although those pesky footnotes have us chasing the bottom of pages. The lesson here is more on litigation tactics. Federal court is a tough playground for constitutional tort claims, and pursuing defendants in two different forums is never a good idea.

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