A judge ruled Wednesday that a federal civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of a mentally ill man who languished in the Tulsa Jail for five days with a broken neck before dying can proceed to trial.
U.S. District Judge John Dowdell overruled requests by Tulsa County officials and former Sheriff Stanley Glanz for a summary judgment in their favor, finding that enough evidence had been presented to send the case toward a trial date.
The state Medical Examiner ruled Elliott Williams, 37, was dehydrated when he died Oct. 27, 2011, of “complications of vertebrospinal injuries due to blunt force trauma.”
Dowdell wrote that, taking the evidence presented on behalf of Williams as true, as required in summary judgment requests, he found that a reasonable jury could find that jail staff who encountered Williams at the jail displayed an “attitude of inhumanity and indifference.”
The staff’s failure to care for Williams “resulted in a delay and denial of medical care in the face of his symptoms that were obviously indicative of a serious medical condition or medical emergency,” Dowdell wrote.
Furthermore, Dowdell denied summary judgment requests filed on behalf of Glanz and county officials, finding that “a reasonable jury could find that, in the years prior to Mr. Williams’s death in 2011, then-Sheriff Glanz was responsible for knowingly continuing the operation of a policy or established practice of providing constitutionally deficient medical care in deliberate indifference to the serious medical needs of Jail inmates like Mr. Williams.
“Inferences could also reasonably be drawn from the evidence that Glanz was notified, repeatedly, that the Jail’s medical care system was dangerously deficient, placing inmates like Mr. Williams at substantial risk of serious harm, but that Glanz continued the operation of a policy of providing that dangerously deficient care.”
Glanz was initially sued both in his individual and official capacities. After Glanz resigned, he was dropped as a defendant in his official capacity as sheriff. The lawsuit now names Sheriff Vic Regalado in his official capacity, which means as a representative of the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office.
Guy Fortney, an attorney representing Glanz and the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office, indicated disappointment with the decision.
“Obviously it is a very thorough opinion by the court,” Fortney said. “Obviously we disagree with some of the conclusions but respect the court’s decision. We are in the process of weighing our options at this point.”
The options include an appeal to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, he said.
Fortney said he hopes to meet with county officials in the coming weeks to discuss their options.
Owasso Police first encountered Williams late Oct. 21, 2011, at a motel where family members had rented him a room after he displayed “psychological issues” after becoming upset over the separation from his wife.
Police initially decided to call Community Outreach Psychiatric Emergency Services to assist with Williams, with one officer telling the agency that Williams was having a “complete and utter mental breakdown at the moment.”
However, police canceled COPES services after Williams later refused to resume sitting on the curb, told officers he wanted them to shoot him and took a step toward one officer.
Police responded by pepper spraying Williams and taking him into custody on a misdemeanor obstruction complaint.
Dowdell described a video depicting the few hours that Williams spent in the Owasso jail as “disturbing.”
Williams, the judge wrote, “moaned, sobbed loudly, rocked, paced, shook his head back and forth, sang ‘Jesus’ repeatedly, banged his head against a wall and, later, the door to the cell, crouched and crawled on his hands and knees, pulled off his pants and scratched his legs, removed the small mattress from a bed in the cell and placed the mattress beneath the bed, crawled under the bed and flopped around on the floor, stuck his head out to use his mouth and/or teeth to grab his pants from the floor, rolled his body repeatedly, and screamed.”
Owasso Police transported Williams to the Tulsa Jail early Oct. 22, with the hope that he would receive mental health treatment, according to the opinion.
Based on the determination that the Owasso officers were not deliberately indifferent to Williams’ risk of being harmed, Dowdell ruled in favor of their request for summary judgment.
“The OPD officers knew that the jail ostensibly offered mental health services, and those officers cannot be held accountable for the jail’s actual practices or the treatment Mr. Williams ultimately received there,” Dowdell wrote.
While in a booking area holding cell, Williams deliberately ran his head into the cell door, according to a trusty who witnessed the incident.
Williams told detention officers and a nurse that he had broken his neck and couldn’t move, but he lay untreated on the cell floor for the next 10½ hours before being taken to the medical unit where he continued to not receive treatment and a head nurse told him to “quit f---- — faking,” according to the judge’s order and opinion.
Williams continued to complain that he couldn’t move or feel his legs for several days before eventually dying in a jail cell that Dowdell described as his “burial crypt.”
At issue in the case will be whether a jury believes evidence presented on behalf of Williams that indicates jail officials were deliberately indifferent to the medical care of inmates at the jail.
“From this evidence, a reasonable jury could find that Mr. Williams’s medical needs were obvious to any layperson,” Dowdell wrote. “They could also find that the medical unit-wide attitude of inhumanity and indifference shown to him, which resulted in the delay and denial of medical care in the face of his symptoms that were obviously indicative of a serious medical condition or medical emergency, amounted to deliberate indifference.”
Another key element in Williams’ case will hinge on whether Glanz was responsible for unconstitutional policies or customs that violated Williams’ constitutional rights and had exhibited deliberate indifference to Williams’ medical needs.
Dowdell wrote that “based on the record evidence construed in plaintiff’s favor, inferences could reasonably be drawn from the evidence that Glanz was notified, repeatedly, that the Jail’s medical care system was dangerously deficient, placing inmates like Mr. Williams at substantial risk of serious harm, but that Glanz continued the operation of a policy of providing that dangerously deficient care.”