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Bell v. King County Public Hospital District

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

May 8, 2019

ROBERT BELL, et al., Plaintiffs,



         The above-entitled Court, having received and reviewed:

1. Defendants PA C. Goon[1] and Dr. Alexander's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 12), Plaintiffs' Response in Opposition to Defendant Alexander's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 22), and Reply in Support of Defendant Dr. Alexander's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 28);
2. Defendants King County Public Hospital District #1, et al.'s Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 19), and Plaintiffs' Response in Opposition to Defendant king County Public Hospital Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 30);

         all attached declarations and exhibits; and relevant portions of the record, rules as follows:

         IT IS ORDERED that Defendant Dr. Alexander's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART; the motion is GRANTED as to Plaintiffs' claims for “medical negligence” and violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), and DENIED as to the § 1983 and gross negligence claims.

         IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the motion for summary judgment by the remainder of the Defendants is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART as follows:

• Regarding Defendant King County Public Hospital District #1 (d/b/a Valley Medical Center), the motion is GRANTED as to the § 1983 claim, the ADA claim, and the “corporate negligence” claim;
• Regarding Defendants Bernie Dochnahl, Lisa Brandenburg, Barbara Drennen, Peter Evans, Jim Griggs, Gary Kohlwes, Mike Miller, Julia Patterson, Vicki Orrico, Donna Russell, and Tamara Sleeter (hereinafter “the Board Defendants”), the motion is GRANTED;
• Regarding Defendants Elizabeth Schaumberg and Mark Thomasseau, the motion is GRANTED as to the claims of violation of the ADA and “medical negligence;”
• Regarding Defendant Mark Thomasseau the motion is DENIED as to the § 1983 and gross negligence claims;
• Regarding Defendant Elizabeth Schaumberg, the motion is GRANTED as to the § 1983 and gross negligence claims;


         A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, the decedent (Matthew Bell) was a man with a history of mental issues (Bipolar Disorder, depression, PTSD) dating from a young age. In November 2016, he moved to Portland in a failed attempt to reconcile with his (second) ex-wife. In the wake of this unhappy development, Matthew's brother (Anders) agreed to buy him a ticket to Tampa, Florida with a layover in Seattle. Anders did so reluctantly - an ex-girlfriend of Matthew's lived in Florida and Anders was concerned about Matthew's proximity to the ex-girlfriend in his fragile mental and emotional state.

         On December 2, 2016, Matthew arrived in Seattle at 10:32 p.m. for his layover. While at SeaTac airport awaiting his next flight, he called Anders and revealed to him his detailed plan to commit suicide once he arrived in Florida. Anders knew that their mother and stepfather were arriving in Seattle by plane at 12:15 p.m. the following day. He kept Matthew on the phone while Anders' wife called the Port of Seattle Police to report the suicide plan. Just before 2:00 a.m. on December 3, the Port of Seattle Police contacted Matthew and took him into involuntary custody, transporting him to Defendant Valley Medical Center (“VMC”) for evaluation.

         Matthew was admitted to VMC at 3:12 a.m. The admitting nurse (not a Defendant) administered a Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale (“C-SSRS”) exam and determined Matthew was at a high risk of suicide. Following the assessment, the nurse initiated an Emergency Response Intervention Team (“ERIT”) consult. Dkt. No. 23, Decl. of Dreveskracht, Ex. 2. The ERIT counselor (Defendant Schaumberg) interviewed Matthew at 5:21 a.m., detailing his mental health history, history of suicide attempts and the details of his latest suicide plan. Id. at 7-8. Matthew remained on suicide watch with an “anticipated” referral to a County Designated Mental Health Professional (“CDMHP”). Id., Ex. 4 at 6.

         Another ERIT counselor, Defendant Thomasseau, met with Matthew at 9:00 a.m. His notes from that interview indicate that Matthew had changed his mind about killing himself:

Symptoms / Behavior: Patient is alert, oriented, calm, cooperative, logical and coherent during interview. He states that he had been thinking about those things, "but, I had changed my mind. Besides, the flight has already left! Matthew reports that things have been difficult "since things have fallen apart with Feather (ex- GF), but I know that I couldn't do anything like that, it would hurt my family too much." He denies any current change in his vegetative symptoms.
He states now that he plans on flying up to Alaska to "stay with my brother."

Dkt. No. 15, Decl. of Duany, Ex. 1 at 17.

         Although not reflected in the notes prepared by Thomasseau, the Patient Care Timeline (Dkt. No. 23-2) indicates that Thomasseau spoke with Matthew's brother Anders at 9:04 a.m. Anders' declaration contains a lengthy recitation of that conversation, in which he reports laying out his brother's mental health history, suicide attempts, and the elements of his latest suicidal ideation in detail, along with his belief that Matthew would kill himself if he were released. Despite Anders' pleas that his brother be detained, at least for a few hours so that their mother could get from her plane to the hospital (and despite Thomasseau agreeing with Anders that Matthew was manipulative), Anders reports that Thomasseau told him that, based on Matthew's current indication that he was no longer suicidal, the decision had been made to release him and there would be no delay in implementing that decision. Anders also says that his repeated requests to speak to someone else responsible for his brother's care were unsuccessful: “Nobody else would talk to me.” Dkt. No. 24, Decl. of Anders Bell at ¶¶ 16-23. None of this evidence is controverted by Defendants.

         At 10:25 a.m., Defendant Dr. Alexander made the decision to discharge Matthew. Dkt. No. 23-2 at 11. She indicates that, prior to discharging Matthew, she “reviewed Mr. Bell's available records concerning his history” and spoke with Thomasseau, who reported that Matthew “denied suicidal ideation, and that he had a safe plan for discharge.” She then spoke with Matthew, who again expressed no intent to harm himself or others, “made future-oriented statements, ” and indicated he wanted to go to the airport to meet his mother. Dkt. No. 14, Decl. of Alexander at ¶¶ 6-7. Based on her training and experience, her conversation with Thomasseau and her interactions with Matthew, she found “no barriers to discharge.” She denied ignoring the patient's psychiatric issues, feeling that they had been properly assessed and evaluated by the ERIT team. Id. at ¶ 9.

         At 11:13 a.m. on December 3, the Patient Timeline lists Matthew's status as “Safety plan; Discharged home.” Dkt. No. 23-2 at 11. It appears from the timeline that he was discharged at 11:22 a.m, and that his “Discharge[] home” consisted of being walked out to the lobby and handed off to security to call a taxi. At around 1:45 p.m., a police report reflects that “Port of Seattle Communications received a phone call from a passenger who believed he observed a ‘body' fall from the top of the SeaTac Airport parking Garage.” Investigating Port Police Officers found Matthew's body in the northeast corner of the first floor of the parking garage. Dkt. No. 23-1 at 2.

         Both sides present conflicting determinations by professional review boards of the events leading up to the suicide. The State of Washington Medical Quality Assurance Commission (“MQAC”) found in October 2017 that “the evidence would not support a finding of unprofessional conduct and closed the case.” Dkt. No. 14-1, Ex. 3 at 7. Earlier that year (July 2017), a report by the Washington State Department of Health (“DOH”) found that VMC “did not complete an in-depth suicide assessment, plan of care or appropriate discharge disposition” in “violation of state law for acute care hospitals.” Dkt. No. 23-10 at 4. The Secretary of Health brought formal proceedings against Defendant Thomasseau, recommending a finding of “unprofessional conduct” in violation of RCW 18.130.180 on his part. Dkt. No. 23-12 at 3.

         Plaintiffs are Matthew's stepfather Robert (suing in his personal capacity and as administrator of Matthew's estate) and mother Leslie (suing in her personal capacity). Defendants are VMC, thirteen individuals who occupy positions on VMC's Board of Trustees (hereinafter “the Board Defendants”), Elizabeth Schaumberg (the VMC ERIT mental health professional who initially evaluated Matthew), Mark Thomasseau (the VMC ERIT mental health professional who also evaluated Matthew and recommended his release), and Dr. Whitney Alexander (the VMC doctor who evaluated Matthew, reviewed the reports concerning him, and approved his release).

         Standard of review

          “The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law when the nonmoving party fails to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of a claim in the case on which the nonmoving party has the burden of proof. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1985). There is no genuine issue of fact for trial where the record, taken as a whole, could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986) (nonmoving party must present specific, significant probative evidence, not simply “some metaphysical doubt.”); Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e). Conversely, a genuine dispute over a material fact exists if there is sufficient evidence supporting the claimed factual dispute, requiring a judge or jury to resolve the differing versions of the truth. Anderson v.. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 253 (1986); T.W. Elec. Service Inc. v. Pacific Electrical Contractors Association, 809 F.2d 626, 630 (9th Cir. 1987).


         Plaintiffs bring claims for violation of § 1983, 42 U.S.C. § 12132 (the “ADA”), medical negligence, gross negligence, and corporate negligence. Defendants seek dismissal of all claims. The Court will analyze the claims in order.

         First Cause of Action: 42 U.S.C. § 1983

         Plaintiffs allege that all Defendants deprived Plaintiffs of their constitutional rights under § 1983. There is no statutory immunity for these claims: “Conduct by persons acting under color of state law which is wrongful under 42 U.S.C. § 1983… cannot be immunized by state law.” Martinez v. State of California, 444 U.S. 277, 284 n.8 (1980).

         While Dr. Alexander does not argue that she was not acting “under color of state law, ” the other Defendants do (“providing medical services is not a state function under Section 1983;” Dkt. No. 19 at 10). They cite no authority for that principle and there is Ninth Circuit case law holding that “the operation of a public hospital is state action and [] a public hospital is required to meet the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Chudacoff v. Univ. Med. Ctr. Of S. Nevada, 649 F.3d 1143, 1150 (9th Cir. 2011). Further, the Supreme Court has declared that, where a public entity delegates its “affirmative obligation to provide adequate medical care” to a physician, the physician is a “state actor” for § 1983 purposes. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 56 (1988). Logically, this obligation extends to anyone on the staff of a public hospital and confers “state actor” status on Schaumberg and Thomasseau as well as Alexander.

         The remaining analysis is split between the “institutional” Defendants (i.e., VMC and the Board Defendants) and the “personal” Defendants (Alexander, Schaumberg, and Thomasseau). Regarding the former, an entity cannot be subjected to § 1983 liability merely because it employed a tortfeasor. Monell v. Dept. of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978). Liability may be assessed against a governmental entity only upon a showing “that the defendant's employees or agents acted pursuant to an official custom, pattern, or policy that violated the plaintiff's civil rights, or that the entity ratified the unlawful conduct.” Johnson v. Mason County No. 14-5832, 2017 WL 750061 at *3 (W.D. Wash. Feb. 27, 2017)(citing Monell, 436 U.S. at 690-91).

         While Plaintiffs claim that they “have adduced evidence that VMC instituted customs, patterns, established practices, and policies that violated Mr. Bell's civil rights” (Dkt. No. 30 at 14), the evidence (if it exists) was not presented in Plaintiffs' briefing. Their citations to “evidence” referred the Court to the police report, the ambulance report, and the “Emergency Department” (“ED”) log of interactions with Matthew at VMC, none of which contain any evidence of “customs, patterns, established practices, and policies” that would support a claim that VMC or the Board Defendants are institutionally liable for the violation of anyone's constitutional rights.

         Plaintiffs also add that they “expect to adduce evidence that VMC ratified and indemnified the unlawful conduct of Defendants Schaumberg, Thomasseau, and Alexander.” Id. (emphasis supplied). In the first place, Plaintiffs' expectations cannot satisfy their burden at the summary judgment stage - they are required to produce proof of their claims, not allege what they “expect” to prove. In addition, their citation in support of this position appears to be to the declaration of Plaintiffs' counsel which merely identifies the “Patient Timeline” exhibit attached to his declaration as Exhibit 2. The Court finds this inadequate to Plaintiffs' burden of proof at this stage.

         Defendants cite to the immunity afforded “member[s] of the governing body of a public agency” by state statute. RCW 4.24.470. As discussed supra, the Board Defendants cannot use their statutory immunity under the RCWs as a defense against allegations of violating federal constitutional rights, but these Defendants also interpose their right to the “qualified immunity” that protects government officials performing discretionary functions “from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly ...

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