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New Jersey Mental Health Class Action Gains Momentum

Afederal district court in New Jersey has upheld the claims of a statewide class of mentally ill prisoners against defendants' motions to dismiss and for summary judgment. The defendants are: officials of the New Jersey Department of Corrections; Correctional Medical Services, Inc. ("CMS"), a private corporation providing prison health care; and Correctional Behavioral Solutions of New Jersey, Inc. ("CBS"), a private corporation providing prisoner mental health services under a subcontract with CMS. The prisoners allege in their complaint that they receive constitutionally inadequate mental health care, and that they are disciplined for acting out the symptoms of their poorly treated mental illnesses, in violation of their right to due process. The prisoners also allege that the defendants have failed to reasonably accommodate their mental disabilities as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), and that CMS and CBS have violated the terms of their privatization contracts with each other and the State. See D.M., et al. v. Fauver, et al., Civ. No. 96-1840 (AET) (Nov. 10, 1997 D.N.J.).

The case began with the complaints of individual prisoners received by the Inmate Advocacy Law Clinic of Seton Hall Law School. Prisoners with serious mental illnesses were being harshly disciplined for lack of hygiene, disobedience, attempting suicide, and other behavior linked to mental illness. Instead of receiving treatment, these prisoners were deprived of commutation time and sentenced to years of administrative segregation. Further investigation revealed the systemic nature of the problem. Two private law firms have joined the Seton Hall Clinic to represent the class of thousands of mentally ill prisoners on a pro bono basis.

Plaintiffs won the first major battle in this suit when both the federal Magistrate Judge and the District Court denied the dispositive motions of the State and its corporate co-defendants. The Court rejected the arguments of the contractor, CMS, that the prisoners were not the intended beneficiaries of its contract with the State, and that in any event CMS could not be held responsible for inadequate mental health care because it had subcontracted away its responsibility to yet another corporation, CBS. Noting that "numerous courts have permitted plaintiff prisoners to pursue third-party beneficiary claims against prison service providers," the court held that the prisoners could proceed to discovery on the "fact-intensive" issue of whether the State and CMS had intended the prisoners to benefit from the privatization contract. Id at 9-10.

The court also held that CMS and its subcontractor, CBS, were both potentially "public entities" which could be held liable under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, and that plaintiffs had adequately pled the prison corporations' role as state actors and policy makers in support of their Eighth Amendment claims. Finally, the District Court agreed with the plaintiffs that the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA") did not narrow their Eighth Amendment rights, but only affected plaintiffs' available remedies once a violation of those rights had been found. The PLRA therefore provided no support for defendants' motions to dismiss and for summary judgment.

Plaintiffs have begun intensive discovery against the New Jersey Department of Corrections and its corporate co-defendants. Plaintiffs' counsel have reviewed scores of prisoners' medical and disciplinary records, and have conducted two rounds of on-site inspections in New Jersey's Administrative Close Supervision Units. Depositions of prison officials will soon be scheduled.

Defendants appear determined in their opposition to the prisoners' central demand -- that mental health status be considered in all prison disciplinary proceedings involving class members. At a recent case management conference, counsel for the Department of Corrections stressed to Chief Judge Thompson that the prisoners' claims would require a lengthy trial. "Yes," the Judge reportedly replied -- "but an interesting one." The court set a preliminary trial date of January 5, 1999.

Class counsel are seeking information from New Jersey state prisoners whose mental health needs are not being met or appropriately considered in the context of prison disciplinary proceedings. Correspondence should be directed to Steve Vaccaro, Debevoise & Plimpton, 875 Third Avenue. New York. New York 10022.

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Related legal case

D.M., et al. V. Fauver, et al.