6th Circ. Says Private Juvenile Lockup Must Face Death Suit

By Ryan Harroff | June 29, 2023, 5:03 PM EDT ·

A split panel of the Sixth Circuit has reversed a Michigan federal judge's dismissal of a civil rights case brought against a private juvenile detention center operator, with the majority ruling that the complaint over a teenage detainee's suicide sufficiently alleged that the company is a state actor.

Spectrum Juvenile Justice Services had successfully argued it was not a state actor and won its dismissal motion against a case brought by the estate of the late Juan Quintana II, who was 15 when he died by suicide after allegedly not being properly checked on for an extended period while detained at a Spectrum "private child caring institution." In a 2-1 published opinion, a majority of a Sixth Circuit panel ruled Wednesday that Quintana's estate had properly laid out the facts to call Spectrum an arm of the state of Michigan in its published opinion.

According to the majority's opinion, the complaint did not just allege Spectrum cared for children on behalf of the state but also that its facility was "similar to a prison setting," which the majority said suggests the company had legal authority over the youths in its care. That would mean Spectrum had a constitutional obligation to regularly perform visual checks for detainees' safety under its contract with Michigan, which the complaint claims it did not do for Quintana before his death.

U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Allen Griffin dissented, writing that the complaint "falls woefully short" of its burden to show Spectrum was a state actor. According to Judge Griffin, the proper test for determining whether Spectrum is a state actor is to see whether it was performing tasks that exclusively and historically fall under the state of Michigan's authority, and Quintana's estate failed to provide a historical breakdown of juvenile detention in the Wolverine State.

"Tellingly, neither the word 'history,' nor any of its derivatives, appear in plaintiffs' complaint," Judge Griffin said. "Plaintiffs' briefing on appeal is similarly devoid of any Michigan-specific history."

Jon Marko, counsel for the estate, told Law360 on Thursday that he disagreed with Judge Griffin and that it is unnecessary for an attorney to detail the historical basis for facilities like Spectrum's being "subject to the Constitution'' in a civil rights complaint like the one his clients brought. Marko said he was "ecstatic" with the majority's opinion and looks forward to presenting the case to a jury on remand.

"Private prisons have been recognized as state actors for as long as I've been practicing law, and probably as long as I've been on this Earth," Marko said. "And that certainly should apply to juvenile justice facilities."

Counsel for Spectrum did not immediately reply to requests for comment Thursday.

U.S. Circuit Judges Richard Allen Griffin, John Kenneth Bush and Eric Earl Murphy sat on the panel for the Sixth Circuit.

The estate is represented by Jon Marko of Marko Law PLLC.

Spectrum is represented by Nathan Scherbarth, Mark J. Zausmer and Jonathan R. Reshour of Zausmer PC.

The case is Rhiannon Nugent et al. v. Spectrum Juvenile Justice Services, et al., case number 22-1487, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

--Editing by Rich Mills.

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