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West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority vs. Grove

West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority vs. Grove

Case No. 
18-1076
Type of Proceeding: 
Appeal from the Circuit Court of Berkeley County (Judge Faircloth)
Issues: 

Did the trial court apply the proper legal analysis in determining that the regional jail and one of its correctional officers were not entitled to dismissal of a wrongful death claim on immunity grounds?

Background: 

Cody Grove was held in the regional jail in Martinsburg under the supervision of Petitioner, Zombro, a correctional officer.  Grove committed suicide on December 8, 2015.  Respondent, Grove’s estate, filed a complaint alleging that Grove was a known heroin addict and, therefore, a known suicide risk.  Petitioners breached their duty of care by failing to take steps to monitor Grove while he was being treated for heroin withdrawal.  Respondent’s complaint alleges multiple negligence claims.

Motions to dismiss under Rule 12 were brought by Petitioner, West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facilities Authority (WVRJCFA), and Petitioner, Zombro.  Essentially, they argued that the allegations of the complaint were insufficient, and, in any event, that they were entitled to qualified immunity.  The trial court denied the motions.  Each of the Petitioners appealed separately, but the Supreme Court consolidated the two appeals for argument.

Positions of the Parties: 

Petitioner (WVRJCFA):  

WVRJCFA cites Hutchison vs. City of Huntington, 198 W.Va. 139, 479 S.E.2d 649 (1996), a case in which the Supreme Court indicated that “heightened pleading” was required in cases “where immunities are implicated.”  Alternatively, WVRJCFA urges the Court to adopt the heightened pleading standard employed by federal courts.  WVRJCFA also argues it is entitled to qualified immunity because its acts were discretionary in nature and Respondent cannot cite a clearly established constitutional right that was violated.

Petitioner (Zombro):  

Like WVRJCFA, Zombro argues that Hutchison requires “heightened pleading.”  According to Zombro, Respondent failed to satisfy Hutchison because he did not specifically identify a clearly established constitutional right and how that right was violated.  Zombro also argues that his acts were discretionary in nature and that Respondent fails to identify any statutes, rules or regulations creating a clearly established constitutional right. 

Respondent (Grove):   Respondent counters Petitioners’ understanding of Hutchison, arguing that Respondent has no duty to anticipate an opponent’s defenses and that other methods exist to flesh out the facts, including a motion for a more definite statement under Rule 12(e).  Regarding the immunity defense, Respondent argues that Petitioners were performing a ministerial act, and not a discretionary act.  Citing multiple regulations dictating what must be done in cases involving suicide risk, Respondent argues that he pled a clearly established constitutional right.  Furthermore, Zombro received a damning job performance review after Grove’s suicide.  Respondent argues that Zombro was, therefore, “plainly incompetent,” stripping him of any immunity under Hutchison

Probable Impact: 

The Court has set this case for argument on its Rule 20 docket, suggesting that we will see a new syllabus point.  Hopefully, the Court will provide clear direction concerning pleading requirements in cases involving immunity--i.e., (1) what are the plaintiff’s requirements for pleading the claim and the facts supporting it; and (2) what are the defendant’s requirements for raising the immunity defense and bringing it before the court?

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