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Schulze v. United States

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

April 8, 2019

LERA SCHULZE, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          GREGORY K. FRIZZELL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the court is the Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 21] of defendant the United States of America. For the reasons set forth below, the motion is granted.

         I. Background

         This is a wrongful death case brought by plaintiff Lera Schulze against the United States of America for the death of her husband, John G. Schulze. On June 8, 2017, John Schulze reported suicidal thoughts to a nurse practitioner, Tiffany Richey. Richey contacted Oklahoma City Veterans Affairs Health Care System Medical Center (“VA Hospital”) regarding treatment for Mr. Schulze. Thereafter, law enforcement escorted Mr. Schulze to the VA Hospital. A VA Hospital healthcare provider assessed Mr. Schulze at 1:04 p.m., and the VA Hospital discharged Mr. Schulze at 3:03 p.m. that same day. Two days later, on June 10, 2017, John Schulze died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

         In this lawsuit, plaintiff alleges defendant breached the standard of care by releasing Mr. Schulze on June 8, 2017, rather than admitting him for extended mental health treatment. Plaintiff asserts a single claim for wrongful death pursuant to Okla. Stat. tit. 12, § 1053.

         II. Summary Judgment Standard

         A motion for summary judgment shall be granted “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) “mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670 (10th Cir. 1998). A court must examine the factual record in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment. Wolf v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 50 F.3d 793, 796 (10th Cir. 1995).

         When the moving party has carried its burden, “its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts . . . . Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no ‘genuine issue for trial.'” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586- 87 (1986) (citations omitted). The inquiry for the court is “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a [finder of fact] or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251- 52 (1986).

         III. Undisputed Material Facts

         The following facts are undisputed for summary judgment purposes.

         In 2017, John Schulze was a fifty-three-year old Army veteran. Mr. Schulze was married to plaintiff Lera Schulze, and the couple resided in Pawnee, Oklahoma.

         On February 16, 2017, Mr. Schulze first sought treatment for depression with psychiatrist Dr. Linda Evans. [Doc. 22, p. 5, ¶¶ 1-2; Doc. 34, p. 2, ¶¶ 1-32]. On March 22, 2017, Mr. Schulze was admitted to the VA Hospital, presenting with occupational stress, depressed mood, anxious distress, and feelings of being overwhelmed and powerless. [Doc. 22, pp. 5-6, ¶¶ 5-6; Doc. 34, p. 2, ¶¶ 1-32]. During his stay, Mr. Schulze engaged in therapy, including group therapy, and completed a Suicide Prevention Safety Plan. [Doc. 22, p. 6, ¶¶ 8 and 10; Doc. 34, p. 2, ¶¶ 1-32]. Mr. Schulze's Suicide Prevention Case Manager, Selonda Moseley, determined that no recommendation for a “High Risk Patient Record Flag” activation would be made for Mr. Schulze because he denied suicidal ideation prior to his admission.[1] [Doc. 22, p. 6, ¶ 9; Doc. 34, p. 2, ¶¶ 1-32; Doc. 22-8]. Mr. Schulze was discharged on March 24, 2017. [Doc. 22, p. 7, ¶¶ 12 and 14; Doc. 34, p. 2, ¶¶ 1-32].

         In April of 2017, Mr. Schulze expressed suicidal thoughts to his son and plaintiff. [Doc. 34-6, pp. 30:3 to 31:14]. On April 8, 2017, Mr. Schulze presented to the VA Hospital Emergency Department with depression and suicidal thoughts, and was voluntarily admitted. [Doc. 22, p. 7, ¶ 16; Doc. 34, p. 2, ¶¶ 1-32]. On April 10, 2017, Ms. Moseley noted that Mr. Schulze reported suicidal ideations without a plan or suicidal behavior, and that he had no history of suicide attempts. Therefore, she did not recommend a Patient Record Flag for Suicide at that time, but she noted that he could be re-evaluated at a later time if a heightened risk was present. [Doc. 22, p. 8, ¶ 18; Doc. 34, p. 2, ¶¶ 1-32; Doc. 22-14]. During Mr. Schulze's April stay at the VA Hospital, plaintiff and her sons went through the Schulze residence and secured all of the guns that they could find. [Doc. 22, p. 8, ¶ 19; Doc. 34, p. 2, ¶¶ 1-32; Doc. 34-6, p. 33:6-21]. Mr. Schulze was discharged on April 14, 2017. [Doc. 22, p. 8, ¶ 21; Doc. 34, p. 2, ¶¶ 1-32].

         On June 8, 2017, Mr. Schulze attended an appointment with Tiffany Richey, APRN. Ms. Richey noted: “[Mr. Schulze] was asked about current thoughts of suicide and confirms that he does think about it. He states he does have a plan that includes overdosing on medication and other means that were not defined specifically.” [Doc. 22, p. 10, ¶ 30; Doc. 34, p. 2, ¶¶ 1-32; Doc. 22-20, p. 1]. Ms. Richey informed plaintiff that Mr. Schulze admitted to being suicidal and that Ms. Richey could not let Mr. Schulze leave. Although plaintiff stated she would take Mr. Schulze to the VA Hospital, Ms. Richey stated that law enforcement would have to take him. [Doc. 22, p. 10, ¶ 31; Doc. 34, p. 2, ¶¶ 1-32]. Ms. Richey noted, in pertinent part,

John went willingly without aggressive threats with the officer; however, this increased his agitation and anxiety. He verbalized his concern of losing his new job if he were to be admitted to the hospital. Lera stated to myself that she understood the concern for John's wellbeing related to the verbalization of suicide and plan. She conveyed this to John and this seemed to calm him.

[Doc. 22, p. 10, ¶ 32; Doc. 34, p. 2, ¶¶ 1-32; Doc. 22-20, pp. 2-3]. Ms. Richey sent the following Third Party Statement with law enforcement to be given to VA Hospital personnel:

Pt (John) verbalized to me that he has had suicidal thoughts for the last couple months. He stated he had/has a plan including overdosing on meds and if that wasn't available he has other means available to him. He ...

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