Heat—and coldness of heart—in Memphis

Johnson v. Memphis Light Gas & Water Div., No. 14-5484 (6th Cir. Feb. 6, 2015). 

 A heat index map from August 5, 2011, a day after J. Dean Johnson died of heat stroke.

A heat index map from August 5, 2011, a day after J. Dean Johnson died of heat stroke.

For much of the eastern United States, the summer of 2011 was one of the hottest on record. Meanwhile, J. Dean Johnson, an illiterate and intellectually disabled man in Memphis, had gone without utility services since February 2010, when he had moved into a new apartment. Memphis Light, Gas & Water required him to have state-issued ID before he could get the utilities turned on. Johnson only had a photo ID issued by his employer—who, by the way, happened to be the Memphis Public Works division. This wasn’t enough to satisfy Memphis Light, Gas & Water. 

Now, to get a photo ID, Johnson had to retrieve his birth certificate or school records, but doing so was well beyond his capacities. So Johnson went without utilities until August 4, 2011, when he died of heat stroke in his apartment, where the internal temperature was over 93 degrees. 

After his death, Johnson’s wife and sister sued Memphis for constitutional violations and state torts. The district court dismissed the claims on the ground that they were barred by the two-year statute of limitations: their claims accrued in February 2010, when Johnson was first denied utilities, but the plaintiffs didn’t file suit until over two years later. 

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit holds that the plaintiffs have introduced evidence that Johnson was of “unsound mind,” a fact that under Tennessee law tolls the statute of limitations. An “unsound mind” means an inability to understand one’s legal rights. There’s a genuine issue of material fact on whether Johnson fit this bill. His relatives testified that Johnson had extremely limited intellectual abilities and was dependent on them for basic functioning. So the district court’s grant of summary judgment is reversed and the case is remanded for a jury trial.