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Coats v. Pope

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Aiken Division

October 30, 2019

LaKrystal Coats, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Demetric Cowan, Plaintiff,
Ray Pope, in his individual capacity, FNU Nichols, in his individual capacity, FNU Cardarelli, in his individual capacity, FNU White, in his individual capacity, Gerald Brooks, in his official capacity as Chief of Police of the City of Greenwood, Sidney Montgomery, in his individual capacity, Roy Murray, in his individual capacity, Pamela Osborne, in her individual capacity, and Tony Davis, in his official capacity as Sheriff of Greenwood County, Defendants.


          Terry L. Wooten Senior United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff LaKrystal Coats, as personal representative of the estate of her husband, Demetric Cowan, filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and South Carolina state law alleging constitutional violations and tort law causes of action arising from Cowan's arrest and subsequent detention and death at Greenwood County Detention Center (GCDC). Coats filed this case against the following City of Greenwood police officers in their individual capacities: Officer Ray Pope, Sergeant Steven Nichols, Officer Daniel Cardarelli, and Officer Brandon White (collectively, Arresting Officers). Coats also sues the following GCDC officers in their individual capacities: Sergeant Sidney Montgomery, Officer Roy Murray, and Officer Pamela Osborne (collectively, GCDC Officers). In addition, Coats sues Gerald Brooks in his official capacity as City of Greenwood Chief of Police and Tony Davis in his official capacity as Sheriff of Greenwood County.

         Defendants filed motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 32, 33, 35. Coats filed a response in opposition, ECF No. 38, and Defendants replied, ECF Nos. 42, 43, 44. This matter is now before the Court for review of the Report and Recommendation (Report) filed by United States Magistrate Judge Shiva V. Hodges, to whom this case was assigned pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(g) (D.S.C.). The Report recommends that Defendants' motions be granted. ECF No. 45. Coats filed an Objection to the Report, ECF No. 50, and the matter is now ripe for disposition.

         In conducting this review, the Court applies the following standard:

The magistrate judge makes only a recommendation to the Court, to which any party may file written objections . . . . The Court is not bound by the recommendation of the magistrate judge but, instead, retains responsibility for the final determination. The Court is required to make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified findings or recommendation as to which an objection is made. However, the Court is not required to review, under a de novo or any other standard, the factual or legal conclusions of the magistrate judge as to those portions of the report and recommendation to which no objections are addressed. While the level of scrutiny entailed by the Court's review of the Report thus depends on whether or not objections have been filed, in either case, the Court is free, after review, to accept, reject, or modify any of the magistrate judge's findings or recommendations.

Wallace v. Housing Auth. of the City of Columbia, 791 F.Supp. 137, 138 (D.S.C. 1992) (citations omitted).

         I. Legal Standards

         The record reflects that Cowan swallowed a bag of cocaine at some point during an arrest arising out of a traffic stop. After arriving at the detention center, Cowan perished as a result of cocaine toxicity, according to the autopsy report. Coats alleges that Arresting Officers and GCDC Officers violated Cowan's substantive due process rights by delaying or failing to provide medical care for Cowan. ECF No. 1 at 6.

         To establish a constitutional violation, Coats must show that Defendants exhibited “deliberate indifference” to Cowan's “serious medical needs.” Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 835 (1994). A claim of deliberate medical indifference requires more than a showing of mere negligence, Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 105-06 (1976), and “more than ordinary lack of due care for the prisoner's interests or safety, ” Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 319 (1986). Specifically, Plaintiff must show that Defendants were “aware of facts from which an inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists” and that Defendants actually drew that inference. Farmer, 511 U.S. at 837. “If an officer fails to act in the face of an obvious risk of which he should have known, but did not, the officer has not violated the Eighth or Fourteenth Amendments.” Watkins v. City of Battle Creek, 273 F.3d 682, 686 (6th Cir. 2001).

         Deliberate indifference involves an objective and a subjective component. The objective component is met if the medical need is “sufficiently serious.” Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834. A medical need is sufficiently serious “if it is one that has been diagnosed by a physician as mandating treatment or one that is so obvious that even a lay person would easily recognize the necessity for a doctor's attention.” Sealock v. Colorado, 218 F.3d 1205, 1209 (10th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted). Under the subjective component, the plaintiff must show that the officials had “a sufficiently culpable state of mind, ” which is shown if an official “knows of and disregards an excessive risk to inmate health or safety.” Farmer, 511 U.S. at 837. Stated another way, the plaintiff must “allege facts which, if true, would show that the official … subjectively perceived facts from which to infer substantial risk to the [individual], that he did in fact draw the inference, and that he then disregarded that risk.” Comstock v. McCrary, 273 F.3d 693, 703 (6th Cir. 2001) (citing Farmer, 511 U.S. at 837). If the official recklessly disregarded a known risk, a plaintiff need not prove that the official acted purposefully to cause harm or with knowledge that harm would result. Scozzari v. Miedzianowski, 597 Fed.Appx. 845, 848 (6th Cir. 2015) (citing Farmer, 511 U.S. at 835).

         Where “minor maladies” or “non-obvious complaints of a serious need for medical care” are involved, verifying medical evidence of the detrimental effect of delay is required to establish the subjective component of deliberate indifference. Blackmore v. Kalamazoo Co., 390 F.3d 890, 898 (6th Cir. 2004). In such cases, the conduct in causing a delay creates the constitutional infirmity, and the effect of the delay goes to the extent of the injury, not the existence of a serious medical condition. Blackmore, 390 F.3d at 899. The Fourth Circuit has held that where a deliberate indifference claim is predicated on a delay in medical care, a constitutional violation will be found if “‘the delay results in some substantial harm to the patient,' such as ‘marked' exacerbation of the prisoner's medical condition or ‘frequent complaints of severe pain.'” Formica v. Aylor, 739 Fed.Appx. 745, 755 (4th Cir. 2018) (quoting Webb v. Hamidullah, 281 Fed.Appx. 159, 166-67 (4th Cir. 2008) and citing Sharpe v. S.C. Dep't of Corr., 621 Fed.Appx. 732, 734 (4th Cir. 2015)).

         In another branch of deliberate indifference claims, a constitutional violation may be premised solely on the delay in providing medical care where the need for medical attention is obvious. “[A] constitutional violation arises if the injury in question is so obvious that even a layperson could easily recognize the necessity for a doctor's attention, and the resulting need for treatment was not addressed within a reasonable time frame.” Scozzari, 597 Fed.Appx. at 849 (citing Blackmore, 390 F.3d at 899-900). In such a case, the plaintiff may rely on the obviousness of a detainee's serious medical condition to support an inference of an official's deliberate indifference and satisfy the subjective component. Farmer, 511 U.S. at 842 (“Whether a prison official had the requisite knowledge of a substantial risk is a question of fact subject to demonstration in the usual ways, including inference from circumstantial evidence…and a factfinder may conclude that a prison official knew of a substantial risk from the very fact that the risk was obvious.”); see also Blackmore, 390 F.3d at 899 (“When prison officials are aware of a prisoner's obvious and serious need for medical treatment and delay medical treatment of that condition for non-medical reasons, their conduct in causing the delay creates the constitutional infirmity. In such cases, the effect of the delay goes to the extent of the injury, not the existence of a serious medical condition.”)

         II. Coats' Objections as to the Fourteenth Amendment Claims Arising Out of the Traffic Stop

         The Report recommends summary judgment in favor of Arresting Officers, who did not seek medical treatment for Cowan, because “[they] did not see [Cowan] ingest cocaine and had no reason to suspect [Cowan] had handled or come into contact with cocaine.” Coats argues that the Magistrate Judge erred by “focusing exclusively on cocaine rather than the clear evidence that [Cowan] had ingested some form of drugs.”

         During Cowan's arrest, the Arresting Officers discovered marijuana, ecstasy pills, a set of scales, and cash in Cowan's possession, but no other drugs. Cowan attempted to conceal ecstasy pills under his car and told Arresting Officers that he was choking. Arresting Officers searched Cowan's mouth but found nothing to indicate that he had swallowed any drugs. The record reflects that Cowan was talking and breathing normally throughout his arrest and continued to behave normally upon arriving at the detention center. Importantly, it is undisputed that Cowan did not inform Arresting Officers that he swallowed a bag of drugs at any time. While Cowan eventually informed officers that he had used drugs earlier in the day, no case law has been presented establishing that officers must specifically ask a detainee if he swallowed drugs during an arrest or that officers must seek medical treatment for general use of “some form of drugs.” Given these facts, deliberate indifference cannot be shown because there is no evidence from which a fact finder could infer that Arresting Officers in fact knew that Cowan had swallowed a bag of cocaine or that he evidenced a need for medical attention.

         Coats also objects to the Report's reliance on Brown v. Middleton, 362 Fed.Appx. 340 (4th Cir. 2010). She contends that Brown is not dispositive since the detainee in that case, who also swallowed cocaine during arrest, “received immediate medical attention.” However, as the Magistrate Judge observes, the detainee in Brown received medical attention as soon as he fell out of the shower in the detention center and began seizing, not upon arrest. During arrest, officers found a bag of cocaine in the detainee's mouth but there was no evidence that the bag had lost any of its contents. Prior to arriving at the detention center, the detainee repeatedly denied having ingested cocaine, declined offers for medical care, and displayed no symptoms associated with cocaine ingestion. Based on these facts, the Fourth Circuit held that there was no triable issue of fact as to whether arresting officers knew the detainee needed urgent medical attention. Similarly, in this case, Arresting Officers did not know that Cowan had swallowed a bag of cocaine based on his behavior during arrest, so no triable issue of fact exists as to whether they knew that Cowan needed urgent medical attention. Therefore, this Court agrees with the analysis in the Report and concludes that summary judgment in favor of Arresting Officers is appropriate.

         III. Coats' Objections as to the Fourteenth Amendment Claims Arising Out of Cowan's Detention at ...

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