Applying the State-Created-Danger Doctrine to Cases Involving Suicide in Noncustodial Settings beyond Schools

Jace Lee1Jace Lee is a J.D. Candidate at the University of Chicago Law School, Class of 2023. He is grateful for his partner Jaehyun Oh for inspiring him to go to law school and for sparking in him an interest in civil rights law. He also thanks the University of Chicago Law Review Online team for helping improve this Case Note with their insightful feedback.

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Content warning: discussion of suicide.

“I’m not exactly positive what’s wrong with my dad, but I think he’s having a psychiatric emergency. He’s . . . it sounds like he’s completely out of his mind. He’s hearing voices. He’s talking about possibly committing suicide,” said Ms. Wilson direly on the phone with a 911 operator. At that moment, Mr. Huelsman—Ms. Wilson’s father—was at home with his wife and was experiencing symptoms of paranoia and bipolar disorder. At the beginning of this mental health crisis, Mrs. Huelsman had asked their daughter to call 911. During the call, Ms. Wilson explained the various psychotic symptoms her father was experiencing, informed the 911 operator that Mr. Huelsman had guns in the house, and again raised the possibility that her father could kill himself.

Shortly after the call, a Deputy arrived at the home. After speaking with Mr. and Mrs. Huelsman, the Deputy determined that the situation was a domestic dispute rather than a mental illness crisis as had been originally reported. Within four minutes of his arrival, the Deputy called off Emergency Medical Services (EMS). The Deputy then took Mrs. Huelsman outside the home for further investigation. Crying uncontrollably, Mrs. Huelsman repeatedly begged the Deputy not to leave her husband alone inside the house, telling the Deputy that her husband was suicidal and would kill himself if left alone. However, the Deputy disregarded these pleas because Mr. Huelsman was no longer making any threats to harm himself. About nine minutes after Mr. Huelsman had been left alone, a loud sound came from inside the house. When the Deputy reentered, Mr. Huelsman was found dead with a gun in his hand.

The above is a brief synopsis of Wilson v. Gregory (6th Cir. 2021). The plaintiffs—Mr. Huelsman’s wife and daughter—brought a suit against the state officials, asserting a constitutional violation under the state-created-danger doctrine. The court dismissed the case on qualified immunity grounds. Essentially, it concluded that the rights the plaintiffs asserted were not clearly established enough at the time of the incident to impose liability upon the state.

This Case Note explores the interactions between the state-created-danger (“SCD”) doctrine and suicide cases. An SCD claim, in brief, alleges a constitutional violation on the ground that the state created or increased the risk of harm to an individual. SCD claims commonly arise when a state actor directly harms an individual or, in limited circumstances, fails to protect an individual from harm by a third party. In contrast, SCD claims have been relatively underexplored in suicide cases. Even in suicide cases exploring SCD claims, the facts were limited to suicides by adolescents in the school context. This Case Note explains why the reasoning in those cases should also apply to noncustodial contexts beyond the school setting and recommends that cases like Wilson be allowed to proceed to trial.

I.  The State-Created-Danger Doctrine

In DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services (1989), the Supreme Court held that, ordinarily, a state’s failure to prevent harm to an individual by a private actor does not amount to a constitutional violation. While ruling out a general duty by the state to affirmatively protect citizens from harm by private actors, the DeShaney Court left open the possibility that, in certain “limited circumstances,” the Constitution may impose a duty to protect civilians from harm by particular individuals. Consistent with this view, many circuits have recognized two potential circumstances in which this duty may arise: (1) special, custodial relationships in which the state assumes control over an individual (e.g., prisons) and (2) noncustodial contexts in which the state created a danger that harmed an individual. This Case Note explores the second exception.

The state-created-danger (“SCD”) doctrine is a type of claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 through which a plaintiff may allege a constitutional violation by the state under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Under this doctrine, courts attach liability when state actors either create or enhance a danger that deprives the plaintiff of his or her right to substantive due process.  For example, in Davis v. Brady (6th Cir. 1998), the police stopped a drunk driver on the road but did not take him into custody. Instead, the police took away the driver’s keys but left him on a dark, busy highway. The intoxicated driver collided with another vehicle and was severely injured. The court found the government liable under the SCD doctrine for putting the driver in danger.

II.  The State-Created-Danger Doctrine in Suicide Cases

Many—if not most—cases where courts have applied the SCD doctrine to suicide cases have involved adolescents in the school context. The Tenth Circuit’s decision in Armijo v. Wagon Mound Public Schools (10th Cir. 1998) is a canonical case frequently consulted by other circuits. Among the four decisions in this Part, it is the only decision in which the court ruled that the facts may be legally sufficient to find a state-created danger. The case involved a sixteen-year-old student named Philadelfio who was learning disabled and had other psychological and emotional problems. One day, Philadelfio was verbally reprimanded by his school’s principal for harassing an elementary school student. When Philadelfio threatened physical harm to the teacher who reported the incident, the school immediately suspended him and drove him home without informing his parents. The school made this decision despite knowing that Philadelfio had made statements in the past that he would “shoot [him]self” and had access to firearms. When Philadelfio’s parents returned home later that day, they found Philadelfio dead in his bedroom with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his chest.

The Tenth Circuit allowed the case to proceed to trial. In doing so, the court focused on the causation element, which requires the plaintiff to show that the state actually “created the danger or increased the plaintiff’s vulnerability to the danger in some way.” The court explicitly held that “if the danger to the plaintiff existed prior to the state’s intervention, then even if the state put the plaintiff back in that same danger, the state would not be liable because it could not have created a danger that already existed.” Even so, Philadelfio’s preexisting psychological conditions did not preclude the finding of causation. Instead, the Tenth Circuit held that a reasonable jury could conclude that the school’s taking Philadelfio home in the middle of the school day and knowingly leaving him alone with access to firearms, despite knowing that he might be suicidal, did increase the risk of harm to Philadelfio.

In contrast, three other cases, also dealing with adolescents in the school context, did not find a state-created danger. However, these decisions nonetheless recognized that the SCD doctrine could apply to suicide cases and laid out the relevant legal standards. In Hasenfus, a case in the First Circuit, a fourteen-year-old student named Jamie attempted suicide after being reprimanded in front of classmates for misbehaving in gym class. The school sent Jamie to an unsupervised premises, despite knowing that she was psychologically vulnerable from a recent sexual assault and that, just three months prior, other students with whom Jamie associated had also attempted suicide on school premises. Although the court ultimately dismissed the case, it refused to “conclude . . . that inaction by a school toward a pupil could never give rise to a due process violation.” Noting that students are “entrusted by their parents to control and supervision of teachers,” the court reasoned that there may be a “specific” duty to protect in narrow circumstances. In these circumstances, plaintiffs must show that the school’s misconduct was “conscience-shocking” or “outrageous, uncivilized, and intolerable.” The court noted that the school’s failure to protect a student despite specific “imminent threats” of danger may satisfy this standard. Since there were no imminent threats under the facts in Hasenfus, the court concluded, the plaintiff’s case could not proceed.

The Third Circuit in Sanford v. Stiles (3d Cir. 2006) applied a similar “conscience-shocking” standard. In that case, a sixteen-year-old student named Michael sent his ex-girlfriend a note in school, expressing that hearing stories about her dating another guy had “almost made [him] want to go kill [him]self.” Michael had several meetings with a school counselor that day in which he assured the counselor that he had no plans to hurt himself. The counselor concluded that Michael did not present any signs of danger. That evening, Michael hanged himself.

The Third Circuit dismissed the case, in part on the ground that the plaintiff failed to satisfy the “conscience-shocking” standard. The court deemed time a relevant factor in determining the state actor’s level of culpability. Specifically, the court held that the level of culpability required to shock the conscience increases as the time state actors have to deliberate decreases, implying an inversely proportional relationship. Because the school was not confronted with a “hyperpressurized environment” but nonetheless did not have the “luxury of proceeding in a deliberate fashion,” the court asked whether the state actor had consciously disregarded a great risk of harm. Because Michael’s note to his ex-girlfriend was “not a clear cry for help” and the counselor had promptly met with Michael after being informed about the note, the court concluded that the school neither knew about a great risk of harm nor consciously disregarded any risk. Furthermore, the court found the causal link too attenuated because there was no evidence that the school had in any way contributed to Michael’s suicidal feelings.

The Seventh Circuit also dismissed a similar case called Martin v. Shawano-Gresham School District (7th Cir. 2002) by finding a lack of causation. In that case, a thirteen-year-old female student named Timijane was reprimanded for possessing cigarettes in school and was suspended for three days. Because her parents were not home at the time of suspension, Timijane took the bus home after school ended. She was later found dead in the basement of her home, where she hanged herself. The court found that the school had neither created nor increased the risk of harm because the school had released Timijane at the end of the school day, as it would have done had she not been suspended. Moreover, although the court did not expressly opine on the “conscience-shocking” element, the case’s facts would not have satisfied this element, since there was no foreseeable risk of suicide. Timijane cried in front of her teacher after being suspended, but there was no indication that she may have been suicidal.

III.  The State-Created-Danger Claim Should Apply in Cases Involving Suicides in Noncustodial Contexts beyond the School Setting

As the abovementioned cases suggest, courts have recognized the applicability of the SCD doctrine to suicide cases. However, those decisions were limited to suicides by adolescents in the school context. Accordingly, there is a question of whether the reasoning of those cases can apply to cases involving suicides in noncustodial contexts outside the school setting. Wilson, this Case Note’s introductory case involving a mentally unstable husband inside his own home, is one such example.

Two considerations weigh against expanding the applicability of the abovementioned school cases. First, courts may be concerned about attaching excessive liability to the government, which may interfere with the government’s discretion to carry out its duties. Namely, the fear of liability may further impede state actors’ ability to make sound judgments. This concern about excessive government liability is also reflected in the qualified immunity doctrine, which protects the government from lawsuits unless the plaintiff can show that the alleged misconduct was clearly established as unconstitutional at the time of the incident.

Second, courts are also concerned about intruding into how state institutions function. For example, the First Circuit in Hasenfus noted that courts have no general authority to decide when school administrators should introduce suicide prevention programs or otherwise supersede the decisions of local officials and elected legislators. The First Circuit further pointed out that different schools handle internal matters differently, “depending upon resources, available information, and the judgment of school and public health authorities.” Similar concerns would exist if the SCD doctrine were to apply to cases involving suicides in noncustodial contexts outside the school setting. For example, in circumstances like Wilson, the court would be cautious to not broadly define how local police departments and deputies should execute their duties.

Nevertheless, these concerns about government discretion and judicial intrusion, while valid, should not completely foreclose the viability of SCD claims. Indeed, as the First Circuit noted in Hasenfus, courts have held state actors liable when they failed to stop inmates from assaulting each other or to provide medical care to involuntarily committed mental patients, even though the aforementioned concerns also apply to prisons and state mental institutions. Moreover, applying the SCD doctrine to cases involving suicides in noncustodial contexts beyond the school setting would not change the fact that courts acknowledge the viability of such claims only in very limited circumstances. For example, the plaintiff in such contexts would still have to pass an extremely high bar of showing a conscience-shocking level of culpability.

Finally, much of the reasoning that courts use to apply the SCD doctrine to cases involving adolescents in the school context equally applies to other noncustodial contexts. For example, in recognizing the possible applicability of the SCD doctrine to suicide cases by students in schools, the First Circuit in Hasenfus emphasized that, for limited purposes and for a portion of the day, students are entrusted by their parents to the control and supervision of teachers. In limited circumstances, the same consideration may apply in other noncustodial contexts. The Sixth Circuit’s Wilson case, for example, involved a situation where the wife entrusted her mentally unstable husband to the police’s control and supervision by complying with the Deputy’s request.

IV.  Wilson, if the State-Created-Danger Doctrine Were to Apply, Should Have Been Allowed to Proceed to Trial

If the SCD doctrine were to apply in Wilson, the case should have been allowed to proceed to trial. For the causation element, courts require a showing that the state actor either created or increased the plaintiff’s vulnerability to the danger in some way. The facts in Wilson easily satisfy this standard. There, the Deputy ordered the wife to come outside her home for further investigation and, by doing so, left the husband alone despite the wife’s repeated pleas not to. As such, the Deputy effectively cut off the husband’s only source of private aid at that moment—his wife—and left him alone with access to firearms, thus increasing the risk of the husband’s suicide.

As for the conscience-shocking element, two particular factors are at play: imminent threats and time. With respect to imminent threats, the husband’s mental instability, his access to firearms, and his wife’s repeated pleas to the Deputy to not leave him alone all support an inference that there was a specific, imminent threat of the husband committing suicide. With respect to the time factor, the court in Sanford noted that “situations in which the state actor is required to act ‘in a matter of hours or minutes’”—such as in Wilson—would require asking whether the state actor’s conduct constitutes “gross negligence or arbitrariness that indeed ‘shocks the conscience.’” Under this standard, a reasonable jury could find that the Deputy was grossly negligent for disregarding the information pertaining to Mr. Huelsman’s risk of suicide. A reasonable jury could, in turn, find that the Deputy acted in a conscience-shocking manner.

Conclusion

Since similar reasoning to the adolescent school context could apply in noncustodial contexts beyond the school setting, courts should recognize the viability of SCD claims in the latter. In making this argument, I do not mean to suggest that states should be more frequently held liable under the SCD doctrine per se. But given the general judicial hostility toward SCD claims arising from suicides, cases such as Wilson are being turned away from courts without allowing juries to examine them. Was leaving the husband alone in the house for nine minutes despite a known risk of suicide conscience-shocking? Would nineteen minutes have been conscience-shocking? Ninety minutes? The jury should be allowed to answer these questions. And for that to happen, courts should at a minimum recognize the viability of SCD claims arising from suicides by people in noncustodial contexts beyond the school setting. That way, these cases can proceed to trial for adjudication on the facts rather than being dismissed as a matter of law.

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Jace Lee is a J.D. Candidate at the University of Chicago Law School, Class of 2023. He is grateful for his partner Jaehyun Oh for inspiring him to go to law school and for sparking in him an interest in civil rights law. He also thanks the University of Chicago Law Review Online team for helping improve this Case Note with their insightful feedback.


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