Chief Judge Thomas Thrash Jr., U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. (Photo: John Disney/ALM) Chief Judge Thomas Thrash Jr., U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

A federal judge has tossed a lawsuit filed by the sons of a man beaten to death at the Clayton County Jail by another inmate in August 2012 in an attack that, according to contemporaneous media coverage, began with an argument over a piece of candy.

In dismissing the case on Friday, Chief Judge Thomas Thrash Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia wrote that Clayton County, its sheriff and jail staff and the former medical contractor for the jail, CorrectHealth LLC, were all shielded from liability in the death of Kenneth Grochowski.

As detailed in court filings, Grochowski, 57, had been arrested on a failure to appear warrant stemming from a 2007 drunken driving arrest in Illinois.

A few days after his arrest, jail officials moved Grochowski into a two-man cell with William Alexander Brooks, then 20, who was arrested on July 31 for misdemeanor charges including theft by receiving stolen property, giving a false name to an officer, driving on a suspended license and not wearing a seatbelt.

Two days later, Brooks attacked Grochowski and beat him unconscious, then shoved his head in the toilet to try and drown him.

According to the complaint, Brooks began shouting as Grochowski lay face down in the toilet, telling another inmate, “I think I just killed this dude, man.”

The other inmate alerted guards, who found Grochowski unresponsive. He was taken to Southern Regional Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. An autopsy revealed he suffered facial lacerations and bruising to his face and body, a broken larynx and a broken neck.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution story said Grochowski gave Brooks one of two Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups from a package he bought from the jail commissary. Brooks demanded them both, then attacked after Grochowski refused.

Brooks subsequently pleaded guilty to murder and is serving a life sentence at Valdosta State Prison.

Donald and Adam Grochowski sued Clayton County in 2014, along with former Sheriff Kem Kimbrough; several jail staffers; CorrectHealth, which provided the jail’s medical services; and several of its employees.

The complaint, filed by Augusta solo John Batson, accused the defendants of violating Grochowski’s constitutional rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth amendments, including “the right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment, the right to be protected, and the right to medical care while incarcerated.”

The CorrectHealth defendants, it said, had ignored “objective symptoms” demonstrating that Brooks needed further mental health screening before being released into the general population, among other failings.  

The sheriff and jail staff allegedly ignored the other inmates shouts for help, and the jail itself was said to be constructed so that a guard monitoring the cells could not easily see into them, among other assertions.

Several of the individual defendants were dismissed over the course of the litigation, leaving the county, sheriff, three jail supervisors and CorrectHealth as defendants. Both sides moved for summary judgment.

On Sept. 28, Thrash ruled for the defendants.

Regarding CorrectHealth, he wrote, the company “plays no role in setting classification policies for the jail and lacks the authority to do so. The parties agree that neither CorrectHealth nor its employees have any input in classification or housing decisions.”

Those decisions are made by the sheriff, Thrash wrote.

“Because CorrectHealth exercises no control over the policy maker responsible for setting classification policy, CorrectHealth cannot be liable” for the constitutional claims, Thrash said.  

Turning to the claims against the sheriff and supervisory staffers in their official positions, Thrash said the only remaining one was failure to provide medical care.

“The supervisory defendants contend that the medical care that Brooks and the decedent received at initial intake was not constitutionally defective and that, in any event, the plaintiffs have provided no evidence that the supervisory defendants were deliberately indifferent to the allegedly deficient medical care,” Thrash said.

“[T]he plaintiffs do not substantively respond to the supervisory defendants’ arguments regarding the sufficiency of the medical care provided to Brooks and the decedent. As such, the claim against the supervisory defendants in their official capacities should be dismissed,” he said.

The supervisory defendants were also sued in their individual capacities, but Thrash said they were entitled to qualified immunity on those claims.

“The plaintiffs give this court no compelling reason to depart from decades of binding case law establishing that plaintiffs must show deliberate indifference in prison conditions cases,” he said. “This court need not reach the question of whether the supervisory defendants were deliberately indifferent, however, because none of the challenged policies created an objectively substantial risk of serious harm. Nor do the facts support the inference that any of the policies were implemented with the intent to punish inmates at the jail.”

The claims against the county for allowing “systemic conditions of confinement” at the jail creating a risk of violence must also fail, Thrash said.

“Notwithstanding the plaintiffs’ insistence that the county and the supervisory defendants are jointly and severally liable for each of the challenged conditions, this court holds that the county cannot be found liable for constitutional violations arising from the challenged housing and classification decisions or from the alleged failure to investigate and ameliorate the causes of in-cell assaults,” he said.

“Under Georgia law, the sheriff, and not the county, is responsible for the day to day operation of the jail,” Thrash wrote. “In matters of jail administration, the sheriff is an arm of the state and his actions cannot give rise to county liability when he acts in his capacity as jail administrator.”

The Grochowskis’ lawyer, Batson, declined to comment on the ruling.  

CorrectHealth’s lawyer, Cynthia Daley of Cumming’s Jonathan R. Brockman P.C., said Brooks had exhibited no behavior at the jail that would alert medical staff that he posed a danger.

“He denied any mental health issues and nothing objective was seen at intake or reported by correctional staff until the incident with Mr Grochowski occurred,” said Daley via email.

She said CorrectHealth no longer provides service to the jail.

The county defendants are represented by a team of Freeman Mathis & Gary lawyers including Arash Sabzevari, Sun Choy and Jack Hancock, who did not respond to request for comment on Tuesday. CorrectHealth’s lawyer, Cynthia Daley of Cumming’s Jonathan R. Brockman P.C., said the company no longer serves the jail but offered no comment.