A U.S. District Court judge’s opinion this week — which allowed a lawsuit filed by the family of Ethan Saylor to go forward — dwelled on issues of state police training and excessive use of force, topics brought to the state and national spotlight after Saylor’s death in 2013.
In a decision released Thursday, Judge William M. Nickerson wrote that he would not dismiss all claims against three Frederick County sheriff’s deputies or the state of Maryland because there was evidence the deputies violated Saylor’s constitutional rights and the state could be held responsible for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act for improperly training them.
Nickerson indicated that his position was based on the allegations in the family’s initial complaint and could change as the case carries forward and more evidence is introduced.
In a lawsuit filed last October, Saylor’s estate alleged violations of his civil rights and of the Americans with Disabilities Act by the state, county sheriff’s deputies, and the companies where the men were moonlighting as security guards at the Regal Cinemas Westview Stadium 16 theater.
Saylor, 26, of New Market, had Down syndrome and died Jan. 12, 2013, from a lack of oxygen while being forcibly removed by the deputies after he tried to stay for a second showing of the movie “Zero Dark Thirty.”
Saylor died of asphyxia with a fractured larynx, according to the state medical examiner’s office, which ruled the death a homicide. A Frederick County grand jury declined to indict the deputies.
In separate motions, attorneys for the deputies, Regal and the state of Maryland all asked the judge to dismiss all claims against them.
In dismissing each of the claims against Regal Cinemas, Nickerson wrote that the actions of the manager in calling for help from security were too far removed from the actual action taken by the sheriff’s deputies.
Much of his opinion focused on what grounds the family had to move forward in some of their claims against the deputies and the state.
Among those claims are that the state’s failure to teach police officers how to interact with people who have developmental disabilities contributed to Saylor’s death.
The family argues that Saylor was entitled to reasonable accommodations through Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act in his interaction with the deputies, that the state denied him the benefit of proper training and that the lack of training led to his death.
Reasonable accommodations would have been to listen to Saylor’s caregiver who said he did not like to be touched by strangers, allow her to mediate between them and Saylor, or wait for his mother, Patti Saylor, to arrive at the theater to defuse the situation.
In arguing that the case should be decided in its favor and closed, the state submitted a copy of the sheriff’s office’s General Order Manual, which includes a section called “Investigation of Persons with Mental Illness.”
Nickerson wrote that the document was “only marginally relevant” to people with disabilities, and that the recommendations in the order were not followed in Saylor’s case.
“It would not appear that the deputies were trained to make any modification at all in their treatment of individuals with developmental disabilities,” Nickerson wrote.
The judge wrote that the most significant unsettled question in the case is the reason for the deputies’ use of force, which he believes appeared to increase dramatically.
The court said the facts in the Saylors’ complaint may support a finding of a constitutional violation for excessive use of force.
“Were it not for the intervention of the deputies, there is no reason to believe he would not have remained sitting quietly in his seat,” Nickerson wrote. “Mr. Saylor died as a direct result of the course of events set into motion by the deputies.”
In their answer to the complaint, attorneys for the deputies suggested that each segment of the evening, when viewed alone, showed that their actions were reasonable: that it was reasonable to arrest Saylor after he refused to leave; that it was then reasonable to escort him from the theater; and when Saylor began to struggle, it was reasonable to handcuff him and later apply pressure to keep him on the ground.
The judge said he would not accept the deputies’ segmented version of events.
“The result of this sequence of events … was that a man died over the cost of a movie ticket,” he wrote.
Many of Nickerson’s conclusions were reached with a qualification that his opinion could change, or laws granting immunity to the deputies and the state could be applied, as the case moves forward and more evidence comes to light.
Nickerson highlighted some facts that seem to be in dispute. For example, there appears to be some confusion as to when Saylor was handcuffed, what statements the caregiver made to the deputies and possibly the source of Saylor’s injuries. While the family attributes Saylor’s larynx injury to the deputies, attorneys for the deputies suggest that some of his injuries might have resulted from the lifesaving efforts of paramedics.
The judge dismissed a simple negligence claim against the deputies and a wrongful death claim against the state. The court also dismissed claims for punitive damages against the deputies under the wrongful death claim and against the state for all claims.
The family initially filed claims against the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office but refiled them against the state of Maryland, which is the statutory employer of the deputies.
Claims against Hill Management, the property manager for Westview Promenade, will remain active because the company did not file a motion to dismiss.
Saylor’s death led to state and nationwide calls for improved first responder training.
The state is defending itself against the allegations even as it develops a law enforcement training regimen tailored to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The sheriff’s office has also responded. In January, Sheriff Chuck Jenkins announced that every deputy in the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office will receive training to help improve communications with people who have intellectual disabilities.
In April, Patti Saylor testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights at a hearing about police training.
Most recently, training issues have come to the fore during debates in the Frederick County
By Danielle E. Gaines News-Post Staff | Posted: Saturday, October 18, 2014 2:00 amsheriff’s race. Challenger Karl Bickel is trying to unseat Jenkins.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.