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Thomas v. Cook County Sheriff's Dep't

December 1, 2009


Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 04 C 3563-Ruben Castillo, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Williams, Circuit Judge


AMENDED MAY 3, 2010*fn1

Before FLAUM, WOOD, and WILLIAMS, Circuit Judges.

Norman Smith, a thirty-two-year-old pretrial detainee, arrived at Cook County Jail on April 24, 2004, and died less than a week later from pneumococcal meningitis. His mother, Marlita Thomas, sued Cook County, the Cook County Sheriff, and a number of correctional employees under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the defendants violated her son's constitutional rights by failing to respond to his serious medical needs. Thomas also alleged various state law claims. At trial, a number of Smith's fellow inmates testified that Smith's condition rapidly deteriorated while prison officials turned a blind eye. The jury agreed with this assessment. It returned a verdict in Thomas's favor and awarded damages in the amount of $4,450,000 against Cook County, the Sheriff, and three individual officers. The district court denied the defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of law and the defendants now appeal. Specifically, they challenge the sufficiency of the evidence supporting each of the jury's liability deter-minations, the trial court's evidentiary rulings, and the jury's compensatory damages calculation.

We conclude that the jury had sufficient evidence to impose liability against the officers for their deliberate indifference to Smith's medical needs. The same is true for Cook County, as the evidence against it was sufficient for a reasonable jury to conclude that the County had a widespread policy of disregarding detainees' medical requests. We do not find sufficient evidence, however, to hold the Sheriff liable. The causal connection between the Sheriff's policies and practices and Smith's death is tenuous in light of the jury's finding that individual correctional officers deliberately disregarded Smith's medical needs. Nonetheless, the Sheriff's absence as a liable party does not affect the jury's compensatory damage award. The parties are jointly and severally liable for the entire award, which measures the amount required to compensate the plaintiff for her indivisible harm, and the Sheriff only added an additional source from whom the plaintiff could collect. That the Sheriff is no longer liable does not limit the amount of damages to which the plaintiff is entitled.

Nor is the amount affected by the jury's improper allocation among defendants. Because we presume that jurors follow the instructions given, we must interpret the jury verdict to be consistent whenever possible. As a result, we interpret the jury's allocation in this case as an attempt to split the total damages among the defendants, rather than an effort to issue duplicate awards for the same injury. We also do not find a $4,000,000-plus damage award for constitutional violations that resulted in death to be excessive.

Finally, none of the defendants' evidentiary challenges warrant a reversal. Although we are somewhat troubled that the jury only heard the deposition testimony of a key witness and did not have the opportunity to assess his credibility on the witness stand, the district court's decision to admit the testimony was not an abuse of discretion. And even if it was, corroborating live testimony from other witnesses, along with the defendants' opportunity to cross-examine during the deposition, render its admission harmless. Therefore, we affirm the district court's order denying the officers and Cook County's motions for judgment as a matter of law and for a new trial. But we reverse its judgment denying the Sheriff's motion, and remand with instructions to enter judgment in the Sheriff's favor.


The Cook County Department of Corrections ("CCDOC") maintains a procedure for examining inmates' health and a system designed to ensure that inmates receive appropriate medical care while incarcerated. Upon arrival at Cook County Jail, each inmate must undergo a medical examination conducted by medical personnel from Cermak Health Services of Cook County ("Cermak"), which runs the health service for detainees at Cook County Jail. Beyond the initial intake procedure, Cermak provides additional medical services to inmates as needed. Each day, a Cermak medical technician is required to visit the tiers, where the inmates reside, and dispense medication, respond to inmate complaints, and collect medical request forms. The technicians then record, in daily contact sheets, the medications dispensed during their rounds, the medical request forms collected, and any other pertinent information, including reports of inmate sickness. In addition, Cermak maintains an infirmary, mental health facility, lab, pharmacy, and emergency room staffed by physicians, all onsite and within close proximity to the inmates.

For a number of reasons, this system did not always function as it should. First, the Supervisor for Cermak's medical technicians ("CMTs") acknowledged that Cermak had experienced problems with CMTs not picking up medical request forms every day. Some CMTs did not have the keys to access the lockbox where inmates deposited their completed medical request forms. Others simply failed to fill out or turn in their daily contact sheets. Further, a number of correctional officers reported that Cook County Jail was severely understaffed. The officers, who were employed by the Cook County Sheriff, kept daily logs in which they often made references to the dangers associated with cross-watching- a practice that required one officer to watch two tiers at the same time. One officer noted that cross-watching created a "major security risk." Another complained that he "[could] not be on both tiers at [the] same time." As a result of the understaffing and cross-watching in Cook County Jail, officers could not perform physical security checks with the frequency required by Sheriff department policy. Also, with fewer officers on duty, CMTs were, at times, unable to gain access to the tiers to complete their rounds.

The plaintiff alleged that her son, Norman Smith, fell through the cracks created by the systemic problems in CCDOC. Smith's tragic story began on April 23, 2004 when Chicago police officers arrested him for possession of a controlled substance. The next day, he arrived at Cook County Jail, the facility where he was to remain until his trial date. Smith underwent the typical intake routine, which included a chest X-ray, blood pressure screening, psychological screening, and a review of his medical history. Those tests only revealed elevated blood pressure, for which Smith received a week's supply of medication. However, according to Smith's cellmate, Carlos Matias, Smith demonstrated symptoms of illness on the first day he arrived. Matias testified in his deposition that Smith appeared to be dizzy, began vomiting, and asked Matias to initiate a medical request for him.

Other detainees, along with Matias, testified to the rapid deterioration in Smith's condition through the week. For instance, Smith's other cellmate, Corey Mitchell, testified that Smith was vomiting for three to four days before Mitchell was released Thursday, April 29, 2004, and that he wasn't able to hold down any food or maintain conversations with his cellmates. Matias also testified that by Wednesday, April 28, 2009, Smith could no longer walk on his own. Instead, Matias would drag Smith outside of his cell where he remained on the floor.

Several inmates claimed to have filled out medical request forms on Smith's behalf. Others testified that they complained directly to correctional officers and medical technicians on duty at the time, and a few even witnessed or helped Smith fill out his own medical request forms. None of the inmates received a response to these requests.

Early Friday morning, April 30, 2004, Matias awoke to find Smith convulsing on the floor in his cell. He alerted Alex Sanchez, who was the officer on duty at the time, and Sanchez contacted his supervisor, Sergeant James Monczynski. However, the plaintiff contended that significant delays prevented Smith from receiving immediate care. First, Sergeant Monczynski did not arrive at the cell until about a half hour after Officer Sanchez notified him of Smith's condition. Next, Sergeant Monczynski contacted a Cermak paramedic, who was located in an adjacent building connected by a courtyard, and the plaintiff alleged that it took another half hour for the paramedic to arrive. The plaintiff also claimed that the paramedic spent a half hour in the tier office looking for Smith's I.D. before he called the other Cermak para-medics.

The delays allegedly continued as the paramedics did not have the manpower to lift Smith up the stairs in a gurney. So they waited at the top of the stairs. Fortunately, a few inmates intervened, carried Smith to the gurney, and the paramedics wheeled him out. Smith died later that morning. The Cook County medical examiner determined that he suffered from pneumococcal meningitis, a particularly deadly form of the disease.

Based on these events, Marlita Thomas, Smith's mother, sued a number of individual correctional employees, the Cook County Sheriff, and Cook County under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violating Smith's constitutional rights by ignoring his serious medical needs, along with other state law claims.After a two-week trial, the jury returned a verdict against Cook County, the Sheriff, and Officers Facundo, Sanchez, and Toomey for a total award of $4,450,000, comprised of $4,150,000 in federal § 1983 damages and $300,000 in state claim damages. On the § 1983 verdict forms, the jury apportioned the $4,150,000 award into three parts: $3,000,000 against Cook County, $1,000,000 against the Sheriff, and $150,000 against the individual defendants collectively. On the verdict form for the state wrongful death claim, the jury awarded $150,000 against the individual defendants collectively. On the verdict form for the state survival claim, it also awarded $150,000 against the same individual defendants collectively. The district court ordered a remittitur of the total award from $4,450,000 to $4,150,000,*fn2 resulting in a final award made up of $4,000,000 in federal § 1983 damages, and $150,000 in state wrongful death damages. The defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law or for a new trial, which the district court denied. The defendants appeal these denials and also challenge the damage award.


Following the jury verdict, the defendants filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b), or, in the alternative, for a new trial under Rule 59. In that motion, the defendants argued that the evidence was insufficient to support both individual and municipal liability under Monell v. Department of Social Services of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). We review de novo the district court's denial of judgment as a matter of law, but we do not weigh evidence or assess the credibility of witnesses. Walker v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. of Wis. Sys., 410 F.3d 387, 393-94 (7th Cir. 2005). Instead, we draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. Tart v. Ill. Power Co., 366 F.3d 461, 478 (7th Cir. 2004). "Our job is to assure that the jury had a legally sufficient evidentiary basis for its verdict," Houskins v. Sheahan, 549 F.3d 480, 493 (7th Cir. 2008) (quoting Filipovich v. K & R Express Sys., Inc., 391 F.3d 859, 863 (7th Cir. 2004)), and the "verdict must stand unless the officers can show that no rational jury could have brought in a verdict against [them]." Von der Ruhr v. Immtech Intern., Inc., 570 F.3d 858, 866 (7th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted).

A. Verdict Against Individual Officers

The individual defendants, Officers Facundo, Toomey, and Sanchez, first challenge the jury verdict finding them liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violating Smith's constitutional rights. The officers argue that the verdict was not supported by evidence or law because the officers' actions represent "inadvertence" at the most. Relying on Palmer v. Marion County, 327 F.3d 588, 592 (7th Cir. 2003), the officers claim that the plaintiff must demonstrate both subjective knowledge and intentional disregard of the risk to the inmate's safety. See also Collins v. Seeman, 462 F.3d 757, 761 (7th Cir. 2006).

A prison official violates a prisoner's Eighth Amendment rights, and, in this case, due process rights, when he displays deliberate indifference to a serious medical need.*fn3 Hayes v. Snyder, 546 F.3d 516, 522 (7th Cir. 2008) (citing Greeno v. Daley, 414 F.3d 645, 652 (7th Cir. 2005)). To establish such a violation, the plaintiff must first demonstrate that the condition was objectively serious. Hayes, 546 F.3d at 522. An objectively serious medical condition is one that "has been diagnosed by a physician as mandating treatment or one that is so obvious that even a lay person would perceive the need for a doctor's attention." Id. Next, the plaintiff must show that the official "acted with a sufficiently culpable state of mind." Id. This inquiry has two components. The official must have subjective knowledge of the risk to the inmate's health and also must disregard that risk. Collins, 462 F.3d at 761. The officers do not contest that Smith suffered from a serious medical condition. Instead, they argue that the evidence was insufficient to establish that they both knew of and disregarded the risk of harm.

A brief overview of the record reveals testimony describing in detail Smith's condition on the days leading up to his death. A number of witnesses reported that Smith was vomiting, coughing and exhibiting other signs of serious illness including nausea and lethargy. A fellow inmate reported that on April 29, 2004, the day when all three officer defendants were working, Smith was "coughing a lot, running back and forth to the bathroom, throwing up, just laying on the floor, not moving, not eating . . . ." . Another inmate reported that Smith was lying on the floor in front of the cell-which would have placed him in the direct path of the officials when performing their rounds. Inmates testified that they complained or heard others complain to officers about Smith's condition during all three shifts: 7a.m.-3p.m., 3p.m-11p.m., and 11p.m.-7a.m., that were covered by Officers Facundo, Toomey, and Sanchez respectively. Finally, Officer Toomey testified that he saw Smith that day, and, at one point, saw him lying in front of his cell.

Circumstantial evidence can be used to establish subjective awareness and deliberate indifference, Hayes, 546 F.3d at 524, and the examples above are just a few excerpts of testimony that placed a visibly ill Smith within plain view of the officers on duty the day before he died. The evidence suggests that the officers were aware of the risk to Smith's health, either from the in-mates' complaints, or from his visible symptoms, Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 522 (1970) ("[A] factfinder may conclude that a prison official knew of a substantial risk from the very fact that the risk was obvious."), and their failure to act could have led a jury to find that they ignored this risk.

As we stated earlier, we do not reweigh the evidence nor do we substitute our own credibility determinations, so we cannot accept the officers' invitation to ignore the inmates' testimony. The officers do not explain why the evidence, which clearly supports a finding of subjective knowledge, is legally insufficient. They only argue that it is "conflicting and specious." This is an argument better suited for cross-examination and closing statements than appellate review. When faced with conflicting, or even inconsistent testimony, the jury is free to believe one side over another. See Taylor v. Bradley, 448 F.3d 942, 951 (7th Cir. 2006); Allen v. Chi. Transit Auth., 317 F.3d 696, 703 (7th Cir. 2003). And when the plain-tiff's witnesses here provided conflicting testimony, the officers had the opportunity to, and did, bring it to the jury's attention. Ultimately, the inconsistencies the officers press seem slightly exaggerated as most of the inmates presented the same basic story: Smith was very ill, the three guards on duty on April 29 knew about it, and they did nothing.*fn4 As such, we find no error in the district court's decision to deny the officers' motion for judgment as a matter of law.

B. Verdict Against Cook County

At trial, the plaintiff alleged that the following unofficial customs or practices caused the constitutional harm and subsequent death of her son: the failure to have a system in place to allow for prompt review of inmates' medical requests, the practice of severely understaffing correctional officers, and the failure to fix the broken video monitors in Cook County Jail. The jury ruled in the plaintiff's favor and entered a verdict against both Cook County and the Sheriff. Any one of the alleged policies or practices may support a judgment against a governing body. Cook County, however, contends that the verdict cannot stand as a matter of law. It argues that the district court should have directed a verdict in its favor after all of its employees were acquitted, and that it cannot be held liable for the actions of the Sheriff's officers. The Sheriff and the County also dispute whether the evidence supports the grounds upon which the jury found them liable. So the questions we address are whether the plaintiff presented sufficient evidence of a widespread custom or practice, and, if so, whether the County can be held liable.

A local governing body may be liable for monetary damages under § 1983 if the unconstitutional act complained of is caused by: (1) an official policy adopted and promulgated by its officers; (2) a governmental practice or custom that, although not officially authorized, is widespread and well settled; or (3) an official with final policy-making authority. Monell, 436 U.S. at 690; Valentino v. Vill. of S. Chi. Heights, 575 F.3d 664, 674 (7th Cir. 2009). To demonstrate that the County is liable for a harmful custom or practice, the plaintiff must show that County policymakers were "deliberately indifferent as to [the] known or obvious consequences." Gable v. City of Chi., 296 F.3d 531, 537 (7th Cir. 2002). In other words, they must have been aware of the risk created by the custom or practice and must have failed to take appropriate steps to protect the plaintiff. Id. Therefore, in situations where rules or regulations are required to remedy a potentially dangerous practice, the County's failure to make a policy is also actionable. See Sims v. Mulcahy, 902 F.2d 524, 543 (7th Cir. 1990) (quoting Jones v. City of Chi., 787 F.2d 200, 204-05 (7th Cir. 1986)).

We do not adopt any bright-line rules defining a "wide-spread custom or practice." As we stated in Cosby v. Ward, there is no clear consensus as to how frequently such conduct must occur to impose Monell liability, "except that it must be more than one instance," 843 F.2d 967, 983 (7th Cir. 1988), or even three, Gable, 296 F.3d at 538 ("[T]hree incidents where vehicle owners were erroneously told that their vehicles were not at Lot 6 do not amount to a persistent and widespread practice.") (internal quotation marks omitted). But the plaintiff must demonstrate that there is a policy at issue rather than a random event. This may take the form of an implicit policy or a gap in expressed policies, Phelan v. Cook County, 463 F.3d 773, 790 (7th Cir. 2006) (citing Calhoun v. Ramsey, 408 F.3d 375, 380 (7th Cir. 2005)), or "a series of violations to lay the premise of deliberate indifference." Palmer, 327 F.3d at 596 (citation omitted). Beyond these threshold requirements, ...

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