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Estate of Young v. State of New York Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities

August 27, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lewis A. Kaplan, District Judge.


At the time of her demise, Valerie Young was a mentally retarded 49 year-old woman who was in defendants' custody and care. Plaintiffs, Viola Young, individually and in her capacity as administrator of Valerie's estate, and Valerie's two siblings, seek damages for Valerie's alleged mistreatment and untimely death. They assert violations of her substantive due process rights, as well as violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA")*fn1 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 ("Rehabilitation Act").*fn2 The matter now is before the Court on defendants' motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint.*fn3


Valerie Young

Valerie Young resided at the Brooklyn Developmental Center ("BDC"), a residential treatment facility operated by the New York Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities ("OMRDD"), from 1990 until her death on June 19, 2005. She suffered from severe mental retardation and other maladies. These included (1) a seizure disorder that was controlled with medication, (2) a neurological condition that affected her gait and caused her left foot to drop, and (3) bilateral edema of her feet. Despite these conditions, however, Young's health was generally stable. Her mental condition improved and deteriorated over time, prompting her treatment team to try different medications.*fn4

The Defendants

OMRDD is the New York State agency charged with providing services to persons with mental retardation and developmental disabilities. It provides services through thirteen developmental disabilities services offices ("DDSOs"). The BDC is the DDSO for Kings County, New York. The BDC is not a hospital, but its staff includes psychiatrists, psychologists, physicians, nurses, dentists, social workers, and physical and occupational therapists.*fn5

Peter Ushakow was director of the BDC from 2000 until his retirement in 2008 and was responsible for overseeing its daily operations. Jan Williamson, deputy director of operations at the BDC since 2004, supervises its residential units. Suresh Ayra is a former deputy director of the BDC who left in 2004 whose duties included overseeing the business office, discipline coordinators, residential services, housekeeping, maintenance and the power plant.*fn6

Defendants Ferdinand, Hayes, and Milos all were part of Young's interdisciplinary treatment team ("ITT"). Every resident of a BDC unit has an ITT, comprised of a psychiatrist and/or psychologist, medical providers, social worker and other staff who provide direct care, recreation, speech, physical therapy and occupational therapy.*fn7 Ferdinand was Young's treatment team leader beginning in May 2001, Hayes was Young's residential unit supervisor beginning in 2003, and Dr. Milos was Young's treating physician starting in January 2002. All three defendants continued in their respective roles until Young's death.*fn8

The Parties' Contentions

On June 19, 2005, at approximately 8:30 p.m., Young collapsed in the shower and was taken to the hospital where she died later that night. The autopsy report attributed her death to a pulmonary embolism in consequence of deep vein thrombosis ("DVT") of the lower extremities due at least in part to inactivity.*fn9 Plaintiffs allege that Young was denied necessary health care and treatment by defendants, which caused her pain and suffering and ultimately led to her death.*fn10

The core of the complaint is the contention that Young, during the last months of her life, largely was confined to a wheelchair or otherwise kept immobile as a result of sedative medication and untreated and/or inadequately treated conditions.*fn11 Plaintiffs assert that defendants knew or should have known that inactivity can cause DVT and, in turn, pulmonary emboli and that they caused Young's death by allowing her to remain sedentary without regular standing and walking.. In plaintiffs' view, Young died because defendants failed to take prophylactic measures meeting minimum professional standards and defendants thus violated Young's substantive due process rights.*fn12

Defendants argue that the oversight, monitoring, evaluation, and treatment of Young by BDC staff conformed to the accepted standard of care.*fn13 They deny that inactivity is a risk factor for DVT and assert that Young's care providers could not reasonably have anticipated that she would develop DVT and a fatal pulmonary embolism because she had none of the currently accepted risk factors or symptoms recognized as increasing the likelihood of DVT. Defendants deny also that Young was sedentary or kept immobile and contend that Young received physical therapy, ambulated with assistance, and appeared wholly asymptomatic in the three weeks prior to her death.*fn14

Prior Proceedings -- Plaintiffs' Motion for Sanctions

In November 2004, Young's ITT placed her on fifteen minute checks that required staff to watch her closely because she had suffered an unexplained injury.*fn15 BDC staff were required to make entries reflecting these checks in special observation logs. Plaintiffs quite understandably sought discovery of those logs in this action but, with the exception of four pages from the logs, they were not produced.*fn16

On May 14, 2008, plaintiffs moved for sanctions for the alleged spoliation of the logs.*fn17 On March 31, 2009, this Court found, inter alia, that defendants failed in their duty to preserve the logs, that this failure was at least negligent, and that the logs contained information relevant to plaintiffs' substantive due process claim.*fn18 Accordingly, the Court granted plaintiffs' motion for sanctions to the extent that (1) the Court could draw an adverse inference against defendants on any merits-based dispositive motions that defendants might make before or during trial, and (2) the jury, should the case reach that stage, would be permitted to hear evidence regarding the missing evidence and be given an adverse inference instruction.*fn19


I. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate if there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.*fn20 In deciding a motion for summary judgment, a court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party.*fn21 For the non-moving party to defeat summary judgment, all that is required "'is that sufficient evidence supporting the claimed factual ...

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