United States District Court, D. New Mexico
AIMEE BEVAN, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Desiree Gonzales, deceased, Plaintiff,
SANTA FE COUNTY, MARK CALDWELL, Warden, in his official capacity, MARK GALLEGOS, Deputy Warden/Acting Youth Development Administrator, in his individual capacity, GABRIEL VALENCIA, Youth Development Administrator, Individually, MATTHEW EDMUNDS, Corrections Officer, individually, JOHN ORTEGA, Corrections Officer, MOLLY ARCHULETA, Corrections Nurse, Individually, ST. VINCENT HOSPITAL, and NATHAN PAUL UNKEFER, M.D., Defendants.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
matter comes before the Court upon Plaintiff's Motion for
Partial Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support (Motion
for Partial Summary Judgment), filed March 14, 2016. (Doc.
145). Santa Fe County Defendants filed a response on April 8,
2016, and Plaintiff filed a reply on May 17, 2016. (Docs. 159
and 178). Having considered the Motion for Partial Summary
Judgment, the accompanying briefing, and relevant law, the
Court grants the Motion for Partial Summary Judgment.
undisputed that on May 7, 2014, Santa Fe Police officers
transported Desiree Gonzales from St. Vincent Hospital's
Emergency Department, where she had been treated for a heroin
overdose, to the Santa Fe County Youth Development Center
(YDC). It is also undisputed that Gonzales experienced
respiratory distress while at YDC and eventually stopped
breathing. See St. Vincent Emergency Physician
Report (Doc. 145-2) at 1, 3, and 4 (Gonzales “would
stop breathing & gasp for air, ” made
“gurgling noises, ” had “difficulty
breathing, ” complained to her mother of chest pain,
and finally stopped breathing altogether). It is further
undisputed that when Gonzales stopped breathing and became
nonresponsive YDC staff called 911. Id. at 3-4.
Several hours later, Gonzales died at St. Vincent Hospital.
Id. at 4. The Office of the Medical Investigator
determined that the cause of death was “Toxic effects
of heroin, ” and noted that Gonzales' “lungs
were heavy and wet (pulmonary edema) with microscopic
features of an infection (bronchopneumonia)….”
(Doc. 145-4) at 1 and 3.
to this Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, Plaintiff sued
Santa Fe County Defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
Counts One and Two of the Complaint for Wrongful Death
(Complaint) (Doc. 1) at 4-21. Plaintiff bases the Section
1983 claims on the allegation that Santa Fe County
Defendants' delay in providing Gonzales with medical care
violated her rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth
Standard of Review
judgment is appropriate if the moving party shows
“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). Once the moving party meets
its initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine
issue of material fact, the burden shifts to the nonmoving
party to set forth specific facts showing that there is a
genuine issue for trial. See Schneider v. City of Grand
Junction Police Dep't, 717 F.3d 760, 767 (10th Cir.
2013). A dispute over a material fact is
“genuine” only if “the evidence is such
that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the
nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby,
Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The Court views
the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party
and draws all reasonable inferences in the nonmoving
party's favor. Tabor v. Hilti, Inc., 703 F.3d
1206, 1215 (10th Cir. 2013).
moves for summary judgment on one aspect of the Eighth
Amendment claims: the need for objective evidence of a
serious medical need. A plaintiff may bring an Eighth
Amendment claim for cruel and unusual punishment based on
“[a] prison official's deliberate indifference to
an inmate's serious medical needs….”
Mata v. Saiz, 427 F.3d 745, 751(10th Cir. 2005).
This type of claim “involves both an objective and a
subjective component.” Id. (quoting
Sealock v. Colorado, 218 F.3d 1205, 1209 (10th Cir.
2000)). The objective component, the component at issue in
this Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, requires that the
plaintiff produce evidence of a “sufficiently
serious” medical need “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.” Id. (quoting
Sealock, 218 F.3d at 1209). When a plaintiff alleges
a delay in medical care, as in this case, the plaintiff must
show “that her medical need was objectively
sufficiently serious, and that defendants' delay in
meeting that need caused her substantial harm.”
Id. at 752. The purpose of the objective component
“is to limit claims to significant, as opposed to
trivial, suffering….” Id. at 753.
Plaintiff argues that the objective harm in this case was
both the respiratory distress Gonzales suffered and her
death, both caused by heroin use.
Fe County Defendants concede that Gonzales' death meets
the objective component of an Eighth Amendment claim.
See, e.g., Martinez v. Beggs, 563 F.3d 1082, 1088-89
(10th Cir. 2009) (agreeing that death meets sufficiently
serious harm element of objective component of Eighth
Amendment claim). Santa Fe County Defendants, however, argue
that the Complaint does not allege respiratory distress as a
substantial harm. Contrary to this argument, Plaintiff
asserts in the Complaint that Gonzales' “difficulty
breathing, ” “gasping for air, ” and not
breathing were “clear signs of a serious medical
condition, ” but Santa Fe County Defendants did not
seek medical aid until Gonzales became unresponsive. (Doc. 1)
at 11-14, ¶¶ 58, 59, 60, 62, and 69. One can
reasonably infer from the Complaint that Plaintiff alleges
that delay in medical care resulted in a substantial harm,
i.e., Gonzales ceasing to breathe and becoming unresponsive.
Santa Fe County Defendants' argument that Plaintiff
failed to allege in her Complaint that respiratory distress
was a substantial harm is without merit.
Santa Fe County Defendants assert that respiratory distress
is only a symptom of heroin toxicity, and may not, as a
matter of law, constitute a sufficiently serious medical need
or a substantial harm for the purpose of meeting the
objective component of the Eighth Amendment claims. In
Mata v. Saiz, the Tenth Circuit held that although
severe chest pain is a symptom of a heart attack it,
nonetheless, “is a serious medical condition under the
objective prong of the Eight Amendment's deliberate
indifference standard.” 427 F.3d at 754. The Tenth
Circuit concluded that the plaintiff met the objective
component because she “suffered both unnecessary pain
and a worsening in her condition-in the form of permanent and
irreversible heart damage.” Id. at 755.
case, even viewing the evidence in the light most favorable
to Santa Fe County Defendants, no reasonable jury could find
that Gonzales' respiratory distress was not a worsening
in her condition. Under Mata, this worsening in
Gonzales's condition can be an objectively and
sufficiently serious medical need. In fact, no reasonable
jury could find that Gonzales' respiratory distress was
either trivial or not “so obvious that even a lay
person would easily recognize the necessity for a
doctor's attention.” See Mata, 427 F.3d at
751 (quoting Sealock, 218 F.3d at 1209).
Consequently, Gonzales' respiratory distress was a
sufficiently serious medical need.
Fe County Defendants also argue that in a medical delay case
the substantial harm requirement can only be “satisfied
by lifelong handicap, permanent loss, or considerable
pain” and not by a symptom like respiratory distress.
Garrett v. Stratman, 254 F.3d 946, 950 (10th Cir.
2001). The Tenth Circuit recently explained in Kellum v.
Mares that the relevant question with respect to
symptoms in a medical delay case is whether the delay in
medical care worsened the inmate's condition by creating
a substantial intermediate harm. 657 F.App'x 763, 771
(10th Cir. 2016) (“The relevant question is whether the
delay worsened Ms. Kellum's condition, not caused it, and
the district court found the delay caused the substantial
‘intermediate harm[s]' of worsened infection and
unnecessary pain.”). Kellum does not exclude
the possibility that respiratory distress, as a symptom, can
be a substantial intermediate harm, which meets the objective
component of an Eighth Amendment claim.
the evidence in the light most favorable to Santa Fe County
Defendants, no reasonable jury could find that the delay in
providing medical care at YDC did not worsen Gonzales's
condition to the point that the delay caused her to finally
cease breathing and become unresponsive. No reasonable jury
could find that the respiratory distress and eventual
unresponsiveness was not a substantial intermediate harm.