Mother Still Waiting To Pursue Lawsuit For Son’s 2015 Death At Pinal County Jail

(Photo by Jenn Vargas/Creative Commons)

The mother of a Willcox man who died of ingested morphine toxicity after being found unresponsive in a Pinal County jail cell in 2015 must wait a few more months to find out if her negligence lawsuit against the county and its sheriff will go forth.

Sklyer Jaymas Clem, 22, was booked into the jail shortly after 7 p.m. on April 24, 2015 following his arrest in Florence on an outstanding warrant in a misdemeanor case from the Casa Grande Justice Court. He was then placed with 10 other men in a cell.

Pinal County jail policy at the time required detention officers to conduct a face-to-photo verification at various set times, including 7 a.m. and 11 p.m.  An inmate in the cell notified jailers shortly before 9 a.m. on April 25 that Clem’s skin was blue; Clem’s was official declared deceased upon his arrival at Anthem Hospital.

Clem’s mother filed two lawsuits, the first in state court against Pinal County, then-Sheriff Paul Babeau, and several unnamed county employees. Among her claims were that the county and the sheriff were liable under the legal theory of respondeat superior for the actions or inactions of county employees.

The second lawsuit alleged constitutional claims against a number of detention officers who the mother claimed worked in the jail the day her son died. In 2017, the second lawsuit was removed to U.S. District Court at the request of the detention officers.

Eventually only one detention officer -identified simply as Gomez- remained as a defendant in the federal case. Gomez was on duty for the 7 a.m. check but did not match all 11 inmates to their photos. A federal judge later ruled Gomez was entitled to qualified immunity against the mother’s negligence claim despite his violation of jail policy as the facts of the case left it unclear whether Clem may have already been dead by then.

With the federal case dismissed, Pinal County and now-Sheriff Mark Lamb asked a state judge in February 2019 to dismiss the first lawsuit. The judge ruled in 2020 that dismissal of the federal action required dismissal of the state case.

The Arizona Court of Appeals, however, unanimously overruled the local judge on one of the reasons for the dismissal – that of res judicata, which bars litigation in a subsequent action of any claims that were raised or could have been raised in the prior action. The appellate court found that the government and an elected official did not have privity, or mutual standing, as Gomez, who had been sued in an individual capacity.

“Here, Officer Gomez was entitled to assert qualified immunity for his actions, a defense not available to the governmental entities,” the opinion states.

But then the court of appeals ruled that based on the federal dismissal, Clem’s mother was prohibited under the legal theory of issue preclusion from seeking to hold Pinal County or Lamb responsible for Gomez’s actions or inactions. She can, however, continue to litigate whether the county and sheriff are vicariously liable for any actions of other employees.

With each side winning one issue and losing one issue at the court of appeals, the attorneys for Clem’s mother and for the county defendants are asking the Arizona Supreme Court to review the opinion. A decision on whether to review will likely not be made until late summer; then more time would be needed to actually do the review if the justices accept the case.

According to the first lawsuit, Clem’s “untreated but treatable condition” would not have worsened until he died if jail officers had properly conducted the checks “on an ongoing, regular basis.”

The mother also alleges other detention officers improperly conducted the count of the 11 inmates around 11 p.m. the night before Clem died. And that a detention officer who brought the breakfast trays into the cell around 5 a.m. on April 25 did not check the status of all 11 inmates.

An internal investigation led to the suspension of two detention officers. It is unclear from the court of appeals opinion whether Gomez was one of them.