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Willis v. Washington State Department of Social and Health Services

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma

March 21, 2017

JONTE T WILLIS, Plaintiff,
WASHINGTON STATE DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL AND HEALTH SERVICES; WESTERN STATE HOPITAL; RON ALDER, Chief Executive Officer of Western State Hospital, in his personal and official capacity; and DR. BRIAN WAIBLINGER, Medical Director of Western State Hospital, in his personal and official capacity, Defendant.


          Ronald B. Leighton United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Jonte Willis's Motion for Summary Judgment [Dkt. #14], and Defendants Ron Alder and Dr. Brian Waiblinger's Motion for Summary Judgment [Dkt. #20]. Willis suffered a traumatic brain injury in the ring, ending his boxing career. Months later, he attacked his girlfriend, and was charged with second degree assault and felony harassment. A psychological evaluation determined that he was not competent to stand trial, and the Court ordered his admission to Western State Hospital to restore his competency within ninety days. Instead, he lingered in jail for ninety-one days, mostly in solitary confinement, before he was admitted to the hospital. He sued DSHS, Western State, and state officials Alder (former CEO of Western State)[1] and Waiblinger (former Medical Director of Western State)[2], in their official and personal capacities, for violation of his constitutional due process rights. Willis also asserts state law claims for negligence and false imprisonment.

         Willis seeks summary judgment on his claims, arguing that the defendants are bound by the result of a prior, similar class action determining that lengthy pre-trial detention while awaiting competency restoration is unconstitutional. The state defendants argue that they are entitled to Eleventh Amendment Immunity and that collateral estoppel does not apply. The individual defendants seek summary judgment on their claim of qualified immunity, and point out that that issue was not addressed, much less adjudicated, in the prior case.

         I. FACTS

         In April 2014, Willis's professional boxing career ended suddenly when he experienced traumatic blows to the back of his head. Willis started behaving strangely and grew increasingly irritable, paranoid, and aggressive. He claimed to be “the new son of God” and believed he was a “Terminator T9-1000” on “a mission.” He spoke “in tongues, ” “cried like a baby, ” and sprinkled dirt contaminated with cat urine on his daughter because he believed cats were holy and it would protect her. In July 2014, his former girlfriend reported he tried to strangle her, but “snapped out of it” when he realized his hands were around her neck. Willis was arrested and charged with second degree assault and felony harassment.

         Pierce County Superior Court Judge Cuthbertson questioned whether Willis was competent to stand trial, and on August 12, 2014, ordered a competency evaluation. Willis remained in custody without bail pending that determination. A psychologist conducted an evaluation seven days later through a slot in Willis's jail cell door. The psychologist provisionally diagnosed Willis with psychotic disorder due to traumatic brain injury and concluded he lacked the capacity for a rational understanding of his legal case and the capacity to communicate with his attorney.

         On August 27, 2014, Judge Cuthbertson found Willis incompetent and committed him to Western State for competency restoration for a period not to exceed ninety days. At the time, Western State's 270 forensic treatment beds were filled to capacity with a waiting list of over 100 criminal defendants, and Willis was not immediately admitted. On October 21, 2014, Willis remained in jail and Judge Cuthbertson found DSHS in contempt of his court order, issuing a fine of $500 per day “until the contempt is purged by admitting Mr. Willis to Western State Hospital.” (Dkt. #15-5). Finally, ninety-one days after Judge Cuthbertson's initial order, Western State admitted Willis for competency restoration on November 26, 2016. By the time Willis was admitted to Western State his pretrial detention exceeded 120 days, mostly in solitary confinement.

         Willis sued, claiming his constitutional rights were violated by the delay. He now seeks summary judgment on that claim. He argues the Defendants are collaterally estopped from re-litigating their liability for the delay, because a prior class action already determined that delaying admission for pretrial detainees awaiting competency restoration for an even shorter period was a violation of their constitutional rights. See Trueblood v. Washington State Dep't of Soc. & Health Servs., 822 F.3d 1037 (9th Cir. 2016).

         The state agencies and officials in their official capacity argue that Trueblood does not entitle Willis to summary judgment. Instead, they argue, the Eleventh Amendment bars Willis's §1983 suit. They argue that the agencies are not “persons” for purposes of §1983. The officials argue that Trueblood involved an injunction, not a damages claim, and that the Eleventh Amendment bars his §1983 damage claims against the state officials in their official capacities.

         Alder and Waiblinger also argue that collateral estoppel does not apply to Willis's personal capacity claims against them, because, even if Willis's rights were violated, they are entitled to qualified immunity-an issue that was not litigated in Trueblood.

         Willis concedes that his §1983 claims against the state agencies are flawed. But he claims that changing the liability theory from “official” to “personal” does not deprive Trueblood of its collateral estoppel effect.

         Alder and Waiblinger seek summary judgment on Willis's §1983 claims against them personally, arguing they are entitled to qualified immunity. They argue that at the time of Willis's incarceration, the law was not clearly established that indefinitely incarcerating incompetent pretrial detainees due to an unusual spike in competency restoration referrals is a violation of due process.

         Willis argues the officials are not entitled to qualified immunity because, at the time of his incarceration, the law was clearly established that indefinite pretrial incarceration for incompetent detainees is a violation of due process, which cannot be excused by lack of funds or facilities. Furthermore, he argues, the officials knew this and admitted in Trueblood that seventy-one and eighty-nine days for those plaintiffs was “excessive and indefensible.”


         Summary judgment is appropriate when, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue of material fact which would preclude summary judgment as a matter of law. Once the moving party has satisfied its burden, it is entitled to summary judgment if the non-moving party fails to present, by affidavits, depositions, answers to interrogatories, or admissions on file, “specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). “The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the non-moving party's position is not sufficient.” Triton Energy Corp. v. Square D Co., 68 F.3d 1216, 1221 (9th Cir. 1995). Factual disputes whose resolution would not affect the outcome of the suit are irrelevant to the consideration of a motion for summary judgment. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 ...

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