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Estate of Clark v. Walker

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

July 26, 2017

Estate of Ryan L. Clark, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
Bruce Walker and Tina Kuehn, Defendants-Appellants.

          Argued March 28, 2017

         Appeals from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. No. 14-C-1402 - Charles N. Clevert, Jr., Judge.

          Before Flaum, Kanne, and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

          Hamilton, Circuit Judge.

         Ryan Clark committed suicide five days after entering the custody of the Green Lake County Jail in Wisconsin. The officers on duty at the time of his death did not know that Clark had a high risk of committing suicide. When he entered the jail, however, he was assessed as having a maximum risk of suicide. The intake staff who were aware of that risk-Officer Bruce Walker and Nurse Tina Ku-ehn-had not initiated the jail's suicide prevention protocol. Clark's estate brought this suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that Walker and Kuehn violated Clark's Eighth Amendment rights by acting with deliberate indifference toward his serious risk of suicide.

         Walker and Kuehn moved for summary judgment. They argued there was insufficient evidence to allow a jury to find deliberate indifference, and they invoked qualified immunity. In a detailed order, the district court denied their motions. See Estate of Clark v. County of Green Lake, No. 14-C-1402, 2016 WL 4769365 (E.D. Wis. Sept. 12, 2016). The court found numerous issues of material fact regarding Clark's suicide risk, the defendants' knowledge of that risk, and who was responsible for initiating the suicide protocol (Walker or Kuehn). The court also rejected defendants' qualified immunity arguments. As a preliminary matter, the court determined that Kuehn was unable to invoke qualified immunity because she was a private contractor, not a government employee. On the merits, the court ruled that both defendants were not shielded by qualified immunity because it was clearly established in the Seventh Circuit that inmates have the right to be free from deliberate indifference to a known risk of suicide. Both defendants appealed.

         Because this is an appeal from a denial of summary judgment, our jurisdiction is quite limited. We have jurisdiction to review only the denial of qualified immunity and only to the extent the denial turned on questions of law. This narrows our consideration to two issues: whether Nurse Kuehn was entitled to qualified immunity as a private medical contractor, and whether it was clearly established that Clark had a right to be free from deliberate indifference to his serious risk of suicide. We agree with the district court on both points, so we affirm its denial of summary judgment for these two defendants.[1]

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         A. Clark's History of Suicidal Behavior

         Our review on appeal from denial of summary judgment based on qualified immunity is limited to questions of law, so we recount the facts as stated by the district court in its assessment of the summary judgment record. See Locke v. Haessig, 788 F.3d 662, 665 (7th Cir. 2015).

         Ryan Clark struggled for years with alcoholism and depression. In 2009 he was released from Wisconsin state prison after serving time for his fifth offense of operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol. His release was subject to extended supervision. Over the next two years he was admitted to the Green Lake County Jail approximately eight times. Each time his extended-supervision officer placed him on a "hold" due to alleged violations of his supervision rules, and each time he was intoxicated.

         Jail records show that Clark received regular medical treatment for depression while in custody. He was frequently given medication for depression, such as sertraline and fluox-etine, and his jail record stated that he experienced "anxiety attacks" when he did not receive his medication. The jail records also documented Clark's serious risk of suicide. This included documentation of instances of self-harm, including a suicide attempt in 2011. At times in the past, the jail had put Clark on "Special Watch Observation, " where he was observed every fifteen minutes to prevent suicide.

         B. Intake, Confinement, and Suicide

         On May 23, 2012, Clark was admitted once more to the Green Lake County Jail because he violated supervision rules by drinking alcohol. His breath test showed a blood alcohol level of 0.27, more than three times the legal limit for driving. Defendant Walker performed the intake process. Following standard practice, Walker administered the Spillman Initial Inmate Assessment, which is a software program that includes a suicide risk assessment. The program provides questions for the intake officer to ask the inmate, and it uses the inmate's responses to estimate his suicide risk.

         Based on Clark's responses, the Spillman Assessment calculated that he was at a "maximum" suicide risk. According to the jail administrator, the Spillman Assessment is not dispositive, and officers have discretion to initiate the suicide protocol based on other factors, such as when an inmate expressly says that he is contemplating suicide. Walker testified that he thought the Spillman Assessment automatically produced a maximum suicide rating for all inmates intoxicated at the time of the test. Officer testimony indicated that officers made discretionary ...


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