Federal judge orders Alabama to fix ‘horrendously inadequate’ prison mental health care

Civil Rights

Alabama Department of Corrections

The Alabama Criminal Justice Center houses the headquarters of the Department of Corrections. Photo by Rivers A. Langley, via Wikimedia Commons.

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A Montgomery, Alabama, federal court ruled Tuesday that mental health care from that state’s Department of Corrections is so inadequate that it violates the Eighth Amendment.

According to AL.com, the Associated Press and NPR, District Judge Myron Thompson ordered the state Wednesday to quickly come up with a long-term plan to address the complaints of the prisoners in Braggs v. Dunn (PDF).

Thompson’s 302-page ruling said evidence given by both sides, including testimony from the Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, Jefferson Dunn, supported the plaintiffs’ claim that mental health care in Alabama prisons is constitutionally inadequate.

“Simply put, ADOC’s mental health care is horrendously inadequate,” the judge wrote. “The psychological and sometimes physical harm arising from these systemic deficiencies is palpable.”

That harm includes worsening symptoms, self-harm and a “skyrocketing suicide rate” over the past two years, the judge wrote. The suicides included that of named plaintiff Jamie Wallace, who testified at trial that he’d received no treatment other than medications, and got attention from mental health officials only on suicide watch. Wallace committed suicide 10 days after his testimony, in an unmonitored cell. That, Thompson wrote, “draped all the subsequent testimony like a pall.”

Contributing to the problems, the judge said, are overcrowding and understaffing—which Dunn himself testified was a “two-headed monster” the prison system had been wrestling with. As of September 2016, the judge wrote, the state held 23,328 prisoners in facilities designed for only 13,318. That’s an occupancy rate of more than 175 percent, the opinion says—more than the 170 percent rate found in California in 2011, which was also found legally inadequate.

The staffing problems pertain both to corrections staff—who work for the state—and mental health staff, who come from a private, for-profit contractor. The opinion says MHM Correctional Services Inc. provides too little staff to identify every prisoner with mental health needs. Because the prisons don’t have enough cells to isolate prisoners at risk of self-harm, they frequently ignore those risks, the opinion says, or put prisoners in unsafe rooms. There’s no practice that prevents mentally ill prisoners from being put in solitary, the judge wrote, and solitary confinement worsens their problems.

State officials knew all this, the judge said, and displayed “deliberate indifference” to the risk of serious harm by ignoring multiple warnings. This meets the standard for a claim of cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, the opinion says.

To address those issues, the judge ordered state corrections officials to work with attorneys for the plaintiffs, a class of mentally ill state prisoner , who are represented by the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the law firms of Baker Donelson and Zarzaur Mujumdar & Debrosse. SPLC senior attorney Maria Morris told the AP that meetings were likely to start this summer.

The AP reported that state senator Cam Ward estimates the price of compliance at $25 million or more per year, largely to hire adequate staff. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said her office was still reviewing the decision, but she’d prefer a plan generated by Alabama’s elected officials rather than a court.


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ABA president expresses concerns about case of inmate who is scheduled for execution

Death Penalty

Linda Klein

ABA President Linda Klein. Photograph courtesy of the Office of the President.

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ABA President Linda A. Klein is expressing concern about whether the death penalty is appropriate in the case of an inmate who is said to be delusional.

Klein sent a letter (PDF) to Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe urging him to consider evidence that the inmate, William Morva, has a history of severe mental illness, according to an ABA press release. McAuliffe is considering a pending petition for clemency

“While his guilt in the tragic murders of Derrick McFarland and Corporal Eric Sutphin is not in dispute,” the letter says, “there is also significant evidence that Mr. Morva has a long and significant history of severe mental illness. It is for that reason that the ABA has concerns about whether the death penalty is appropriate in his case.”

The ABA doesn’t oppose or support capital punishment on the merits, but the association does have an interest in “ensuring that the death penalty is not imposed on individuals who do not have the highest culpability for the most serious crimes,” the letter says.

The ABA takes the position that individuals should not be executed if they have severe mental illness at the time of their crime or at the time of execution.

The letter notes findings from a post-conviction investigation that led a clinical expert to conclude that Morva suffers from a delusional disorder that makes him unable to distinguish reality from delusions. The expert said Morva likely suffered from delusions at the time of his crime that made him believe people were trying to kill him.

The defense has cited evidence that, in his late teens and early 20s, Morva began displaying bizarre behavior, such as expressing beliefs that he had special powers, being found without all his clothes in a public restroom, and eating strange things such as pine cones and raw meat.


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Republicans call on Ginsburg to recuse herself in travel ban case

U.S. Supreme Court

Ginsburg

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

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Fifty-eight Republican lawmakers are calling on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to recuse herself in the travel ban case that will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The lawmakers sent a letter to Ginsburg saying she should recuse herself because of critical comments she made about Donald Trump during the presidential campaign. Ginsburg said Trump is “a faker” who “has no consistency about him.”

The National Law Journal (sub. req.) and the Washington Times have coverage.

“I can’t imagine what the country would be with Donald Trump as our president,” Ginsburg had said.

The letter (PDF) asserted that Ginsburg is “bound by law” to recuse herself. “There is no doubt that your impartiality can be reasonably questioned; indeed, it would be unreasonable not to question your impartiality,” the letter said. “Failure to recuse yourself from any such case would violate the law and undermine the credibility of the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Experts interviewed by the National Law Journal expressed doubt that Ginsburg is obligated to recuse herself, and said she is unlikely to do so. The article points out that no parties to the case have sought Ginsburg’s recusal.

Charles Geyh, a professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law at Bloomington, noted in an interview with the NLJ that Ginsburg’s comments did not specifically address the travel ban. “Were a case to come before the court that more directly involved President Trump as an individual party, the arguments for Justice Ginsburg’s recusal would be stronger than they are here,” he said.

But Chapman University law professor Ronald Rotunda told the Washington Times that Ginsburg’s comments could be interpreted as an endorsement of Hillary Clinton, and ethics rules require federal judges to refrain from opposing or endorsing a candidate. The rules don’t specifically apply to the U.S. Supreme Court, but Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has said the court follows them.


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Judge tosses suits claiming insurance investigators hacked into lawyers’ outside database

Law Firms

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A federal judge in California has tossed two lawsuits claiming that private investigators hired by workers’ comp insurance companies hacked into confidential lawyer files stored in an online file-storage system.

U.S. District Judge Andrew Guilford of California ruled that the alleged hacking didn’t violate state tort law and couldn’t be targeted in a lawsuit filed under the Stored Communications Act.

The hacking didn’t amount to the tort of trespass to electronic chattels because there was no damage or impairment of the computer system, Guilford said in a June 27 decision. And the hacked file management system didn’t qualify as an “electronic communication service” that can be the subject of a civil lawsuit under the Stored Communications Act, he said.

The complaints had alleged the investigators hacked into the database operated by HQSU Sign Up Services at the behest of three insurers, including Berkshire Hathaway Homestate Companies. The investigators allegedly accessed and downloaded more than 30,000 workers’ comp files to help the insurers gain a litigation advantage.

HQSU was an outside contractor that maintained an online repository of case files for various workers’ compensation lawyers.

The plaintiffs were Hector Casillas, Adela Gonzales, and Tomas Montano.

Hat tip to Law360.

See also:

ABA Journal: “Cybersecurity laws are a worldwide but evolving patchwork”


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Shakeup marks top 10 family-friendly law firms for 2017

Law Firms

Family Friendly

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Updated: Yale Law Women has announced its list of the top 10 family-friendly law firms for 2017, and it looks a lot different than last year’s list.

Only three firms appear on both lists, Above the Law reports. The three returning firms are Arnold & Porter (now Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer as a result of a merger), Morrison & Foerster, and O’Melveny & Myers. An executive summary is here (PDF), and the full report is here (PDF).

The top 10, in alphabetical order, are:

• Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer

• Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton

• Jenner & Block

• King & Spalding

• Morrison & Foerster

• Munger, Tolles & Olson

• O’Melveny & Myers

• Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe

• Proskauer Rose

• Simpson Thacher & Bartlett

Cecilia Cheng, chair of the top ten committee, told Above the Law that one reason the list changed is methodology. The 2016 list was based on data from the National Association for Law Placement. Because of timing issues related to the NALP data, this year’s list is based on a survey of law firms in the 2017 Vault 100.

Cheng also said the list often changes when firms are surveyed because the focus is on what they have done in the past year to promote family friendliness.

The survey also awarded category honors.

The firms with the highest percentage of associates on part-time schedules are Hunton & Williams; Squire Patton Boggs; and Perkins Coie.

The firms with the highest percent of lawyers in 2016 promoted to partner who have worked part-time or flexible full-time schedules are Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe; Morrison & Foerster; and Munger, Tolles & Olson.

The firms with the greatest number of weeks offered to associates for caretaker leave are Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe; Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati; and Winston & Strawn.

The firms with the highest percent of male associates and partners taking caregiver leave are Linklaters, Jenner & Block and Mintz Levin.

The firms where more than half the lawyers promoted to partner in 2016 were women are Perkins Coie, Steptoe & Johnson and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett.

The firms where at least 40 percent of the executive or management committee is comprised of women are Latham & Watkins and Morrison & Foerster.

Firms where at least 25 percent of the equity partners are women are WilmerHale and Ropes & Gray.

Updated at 12:24 p.m. to correct lede.


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