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Donlon v. Hillsborough County

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

May 9, 2019

Cheryl Donlon
Hillsborough County, et al.



         Cheryl Donlon sued Hillsborough County and five of its employees alleging claims arising out of injuries she suffered while in their custody and care. Defendants Hillsborough County, Xina Barnes, Flavia Martin, Denise Ryan, and Lynda Wheeler (“County Defendants”), move for judgment on the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) as to all Donlon's claims.[1] Doc. nos. 12, 12-1. Donlon objects and moves for leave to amend her complaint (doc. nos. 16-17), to which the County Defendants object (doc. no. 20). For the following reasons, the court grants in part and denies in part Donlon's motion to amend. The court will postpone ruling on the motion for judgment on the pleadings until Donlon files the amended complaint.


         Because allowing Donlon's proposed amended complaint would moot the County Defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings, the court must first consider Donlon's motion to amend. See McCusker v. Lakeview Rehab. Ctr., Inc., No. CIV. 03-243-JD, 2003 WL 22143245, at *1 (D.N.H. Sept. 17, 2003); LR 15.1(c) (providing that, when a plaintiff files an amended complaint with leave of the court after the filing of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the motion to dismiss shall be automatically denied without prejudice). Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a), the court should freely give leave to amend “when justice so requires.” This liberal standard does not mean that every request for leave to amend should be granted. See Manning v. Boston Med. Ctr. Corp., 725 F.3d 34, 60 (1st Cir. 2013). Rather, a court may deny a request for leave to amend when “the request is characterized by undue delay, bad faith, futility, or the absence of due diligence on the movant's part.” Id. at 61 (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted).

         The County Defendants object to the requested amendment in part on futility grounds. A “futile” amendment is one that “would fail to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.” Glassman v. Computervision Corp., 90 F.3d 617, 623 (1st Cir. 1996). When, as here, a plaintiff files a motion to amend in response to a motion to dismiss and discovery is not yet complete, the futility inquiry mirrors the analysis applied under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Id. That is, the court applies the same standard in considering whether a motion to amend is futile as it does when deciding a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. See id.

         Under Rule 12(b)(6), the court must accept the factual allegations in the complaint as true, draw all reasonable inferences from those facts in the plaintiff's favor, and “determine whether the factual allegations in the plaintiff's complaint set forth a plausible claim upon which relief may be granted.” Foley v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 772 F.3d 63, 71, 75 (1st Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted). A claim is facially plausible “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).


         The following facts are derived from Donlon's proposed amended complaint (doc. no. 17-1), which provides slightly more detail than the original complaint (doc. no. 1). Donlon was incarcerated as a pre-trial detainee at the Hillsborough County House of Corrections, also known as the Valley Street Jail (“Jail”), from July 11 to August 8, 2015. Hillsborough County operates the Jail. Defendants Barnes, Martin, Ryan, and Wheeler were all employees of Hillsborough County and worked as medical care personnel at the Jail during the time Donlon was detained there. Defendant Masewic also worked at the Jail during that time as a medical doctor pursuant to a contract with Hillsborough County.

         Prior to Donlon's detention, she was diagnosed with “major depression disorder[, ] generalized anxiety disorder, and borderline personality disorder.” Doc. no. 17-1 at 3. Upon her arrival to the Jail on July 11, medical personnel evaluated Donlon and learned that she experienced depression and anxiety and that she took several medications prior to being detained, including Xanax. Medical personnel then prescribed Donlon several medications, but not Xanax. Xanax falls within a class of drugs known as benzodiazepines. Medical staff also did not prescribe Donlon an alternative benzodiazepine, or anything to treat her for benzodiazepine withdrawal.

         On July 16, Donlon complained to medical staff that she was experiencing increased anxiety, lack of sleep, and sweats, which are well-known signs of withdrawal. Medical personnel altered her prescriptions slightly but did not add anything to address benzodiazepine withdrawal. On July 18, Donlon again complained of these symptoms and requested that she be put back on Xanax. Over the following week, there were several incidents during which medical and correctional staff observed Donlon to be disorientated, belligerent, uncooperative, and unable to control her bowels.

         On July 27, correctional officers found Donlon naked in her cell with feces spread throughout the cell. The officers observed that Donlon appeared delirious and was unable to comply with their demands. The officers physically subdued her using pepper spray and strapped her into a restraint chair, which caused five of her ribs to fracture. That same day, medical staff entered a note stating that Donlon may have had “delirium due to prolong[ed] benzodiazepine . . . withdrawal.” Doc. no. 17-1 at ¶ 23. Medical staff then ordered blood work, which revealed that Donlon was experiencing kidney failure.

         On July 29, the Jail transferred Donlon to Elliot Hospital for emergency medical care. The hospital records demonstrate that Donlon “gradually returned to baseline after treatment for benzodiazepine withdrawal and dehydration.” Id. at ¶ 32. She was discharged with a prescription for Klonopin, a long-acting benzodiazepine.

         In June 2018, Donlon filed this suit asserting five claims based on her allegations that defendants caused her to suffer withdrawal from Xanax, failed to recognize her symptoms of withdrawal, and failed to administer proper treatment. Count I alleges a civil rights claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Fourteenth Amendment against all of the individually named defendants stating that they acted with deliberate indifference in failing to provide her adequate medical care. Count II asserts a civil rights claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Fourteenth Amendment against Hillsborough County, alleging that it had de facto policies that resulted in the provision of inadequate medical care to Donlon. Count III asserts that Hillsborough County discriminated against Donlon in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq., and the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794. Count IV alleges a negligence claim against Hillsborough County and Count V asserts that Hillsborough County is vicariously liable for the misconduct of its employees.[2] The complaint also references a violation of Donlon's rights under the Fourth and Eighth Amendments to the United States Constitution as well as “rights secured under the laws and constitution of the State of New Hampshire.” Doc. no. 1 at ¶ 1. Donlon requests compensatory and punitive damages, equitable relief, and an award of attorney's fees and costs.

         The County Defendants moved for judgment on the pleadings. Donlon objected and moved to amend her complaint, asserting that the amendment was aimed at curing the deficiencies highlighted by the County Defendants. The amended complaint asserts largely the same claims as the original complaint with some alterations and additions. Count I remains essentially the same. Donlon changed the title of Count II to a “Monell” claim and added allegations that Hillsborough County knew of its employees' unconstitutional conduct and failed to discipline them, which reinforced the policies leading to Donlon's injuries. In Count III, Donlon dropped any reference to the Rehabilitation Act. She also modified her ADA claim to assert that Hillsborough County discriminated against her by refusing to allow the reasonable accommodation of prescribing her Xanax. Finally, the amended complaint combines Counts IV and V into one count of negligence against Hillsborough County on the basis of direct and vicarious liability. Donlon has dropped all references to the Fourth and Eighth Amendments to the United States Constitution and appears to have removed her request for equitable relief. The County Defendants object on futility grounds to the motion to amend.


         As explained above, the court will first address Donlon's motion to amend. Donlon asserts that she should be permitted to amend her complaint because the amended complaint cures the deficiencies pointed out by the County Defendants in their motion for judgment on the pleadings. The County Defendants raise two objections to her motion to amend: (1) amendment should be permitted only to the extent that her new claims “relate back” to the original complaint because the statute of limitations on her claims has run; and (2) amendment is futile because the amended complaint still fails to state valid claims for relief.[3]

         I. Timeliness of Amended Complaint

         The County Defendants first argue that, because the statute of limitations on Donlon's claims had run at the time she moved to amend, her amended complaint should be allowed only to the extent that it “relates back” to her original complaint. The court agrees that Donlon's claims are time-barred unless they relate back under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c).

         A three-year statute of limitations applies to all Donlon's claims. See Owens v. Okure, 488 U.S. 235, 250-251 (1989) (holding that § 1983 claims borrow the state statute of limitations for general personal injury claims); Trovato v. City of Manchester, N.H., 992 F.Supp. 493, 499 (D.N.H. 1997) (recognizing that the ADA borrows analogous state statute of limitations, which is the three-year statute governing personal actions); New Hampshire Revised Statutes Annotated (“RSA”) § 508:4, I (providing three-year statute of limitations for all personal actions). It is undisputed that the alleged misconduct occurred between July 11 and August 8, 2015. Donlon filed her complaint in June 2018, within the three-year statute of limitations. However, she filed her request to amend the complaint in October 2018, outside of the limitations period. The claims asserted in the amended complaint are thus time- barred unless the amended complaint “relates back” to the original complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c).

         The purpose of Rule 15(c) “is to allow a plaintiff to avoid the preclusive effect of a statute of limitations so long as certain conditions are satisfied.” Connectu LLC v. Zuckerberg, 522 F.3d 82, 94 (1st Cir. 2008). Under Rule 15(c)(1), an amended complaint adding additional claims relates back to the original complaint if either: “(A) the law that provides the applicable statute of limitations allows relation back”; or “(B) the amendment asserts a claim or defense that arose out of the conduct, transaction, or occurrence set out-or attempted to be set out-in the original pleading.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(c)(1)(A)-(B).

         Although the County Defendants contend that Donlon's amended complaint should be allowed “only to the extent she is able to relate back the additional facts and theorem, ” doc. no. 20-1 at 4, defendants do not develop an argument as to why Donlon cannot meet the Rule 15(c) standard. After comparing the complaint with the proposed amended ...

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