Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Wagner v. County of Maricopa (9th Cir. - March 7, 2012)

There's almost nothing about this I especially like.

I was surprised to see this case even go to trial.  Eric Vogel was a schizophrenic approximately my age who lived an incredibly sheltered and isolated life and was arrested -- entirely properly -- for assaulting a police officer.  So he's put in jail.  Seems okay so far.

At the jail, he gets assessed as having psychological problems, so he's going to be transferred to the psych unit at the jail.  Seems fine.  But he's in jail, and they need to dress him in jail clothes, so they tell him to get on his jail stuff, he refuses, they struggle, but eventually get him dressed.  They then transport him to the part of the jail that deals with inmates with psychological problems.  All seemingly good so far.

He receives treatment for a week and then is bailed out by his mother.  Returns home.  Three weeks later, he freaks out when his mother tells him he he might face additional charges because he spit on an officer while he struggled with them at jail.  He jumps out of a car, runs four or five miles, has a heart attack, and dies.

His estate then sues for violation of his civil rights.

Where's the tort?  Where's the deprivation?  What went down that shouldn't have gone down?

They properly arrested him.  They properly forced him to get into jail clothes.  They properly transferred him to the psych ward.  And when they released him, they weren't the ones -- three weeks later -- who caused him to run five miles.  Why no summary judgment?  Especially given qualified immunity.

The only thing I can gather from the majority opinion is that the court -- like the Ninth Circuit -- wasn't all that thrilled with Joe Arpaio's policy of dressing inmates in pink (including pink underwear).  Okay, well, neither am I, to tell you the truth.  But it's pretty hard for me to jump to the conclusion that this somehow violated Wagner's clearly established constitutional rights, or makes Maricopa County responsible for his death from a heart attack after he was released from jail.  Which is what the entirety of the lawsuit is about.

But, worse, the majority opinion here isn't even discussing whether defendants should prevail on summary judgment or at the qualified immunity stage.  The case went to trial.  The jury found for the defendants.  The Ninth Circuit reverses.


The majority is convinced that there were some evidentiary errors at trial, and reverses on that basis.  But I'm not even sure those were errors, and even if they were, they seem pretty harmless.  The district court said the mother couldn't testify that her son told her he thought he was being raped because that's hearsay.  I find that a pretty credible ruling.  And the district court excluded an expert under Daubert who wanted to say that the heart attack three weeks later was "likely" caused when Wagner recalled being dressed at jail.  But everyone agreed that schizophrenics have a greater risk of heart attacks and that running five miles didn't help.  I'm not sure that the district court got this one wrong when it held the evidence inadmissible.

But more centrally, I don't find it particularly plausible that any of this was why the jury found for defendants in the first place.  I strongly doubt that the jury thought that Wagner had no mental problems (since this was both clear and undisputed); am confident that the jury knew that Wagner didn't like being dressed down at jail (which is why he struggled and was screaming that he was being raped); and pretty firmly believe that the jury was told at trial that Wagner's mental state deteriorated after he was released on bail.  None of that was why they found for the defendants, I think.  The excluded evidence just doesn't seem all that critical.  Even if it was improperly excluded, an issue about which I have my doubts.

So it's hard for me to get on board with Judge Noonan's majority opinion.  And while Judge Randy Smith does a decent job addressing the evidentiary issues in his dissent, even that was too much of a "checklist" for me, in addition to not raising the harmless error point.

Maybe I just don't understand how the case got as far as it did.  Which in turn makes me have a hard time figuring out why, even after a jury verdict, the case gets reversed for non-central evidentiary issues.

It's not that I like wearing pink underwear.  I don't.  But I don't like wearing orange jumpsuits -- or any prison clothes, for that matter -- either. 

The claim that wearing particular prison clothes violated an inmate's clearly established constitutional rights because it caused him to have a heart attack from running while on bail three weeks later just doesn't resonate with me very well.  Nor does reversing a similar judgment from a jury based on evidentiary errors.

P.S. - I do agree, by the way, with Judge Noonan that cutting off the plaintiffs' ordinarily-scheduled ability to close at oral argument was unexplained and perfunctory.  It also seemed somewhat retaliatory.  And I didn't think Judge Smith's defense of this conduct was at all persuasive.  But, again, harmless error.  That's not what caused the jury to come back as it did.