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Washington DOC Settles Contempt Action For $500,000; Money To Fund Patient Advocate

The Washington Department of Corrections has agreed to pay $500,000 to settle a contempt action stemming from alleged violations of a consent decree governing medical care at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW). Pending approval by the court, roughly half of the money will be used to pay attorneys' fees and costs, while the rest will be used to hire an independent Patient Advocate to help prisoners address complaints about health care services at the prison.

In September 1993, five prisoners at WCCW filed a class action lawsuit in federal district court alleging that health care at the prison was so abysmal as to be unconstitutional. In January 1995, the parties entered into a consent decree requiring prison officials to improve health care services--including mental health care and dental services--at WCCW.
In the spring of 1999, a trial was held in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington to consider termination of the consent decree. Noting that proper notice had not been given to the defendants regarding alleged medical care violations, the district court examined only plaintiff's alleged violations of dental and mental health care. The court also refused to consider plaintiffs' motion to find prison officials in contempt for violating the decree's medical care provisions. After the trial, the court determined that the defendants had substantially complied with the dental and mental health portions of the agreement and terminated the 1995 decree. Plaintiffs appealed.

On review, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court's findings regarding compliance with the mental and dental health care provisions and finalized termination of the consent decree effective April 26, 2002. However, the Ninth Circuit further held that the district court's refusal to consider plaintiff's contempt motion for past breaches of the decree was an abuse of discretion and remanded the case for reconsideration of the motion. Hallett v. Morgan, 296 F.3d 732 (9th Cir. 2002) [See PLN, June 2003, p. 27].

In their motion to find prison officials in contempt, the plaintiffs alleged numerous instances of noncompliance, including the DOC's failure to: maintain adequate numbers of sufficiently qualified health care professionals; make current written policies and procedures available to medical personnel; implement a centralized data collection system to capture medical data; provide prisoners with necessary follow-up care; or provide appropriate chronic disease management and gynecological care.
Plaintiffs also contended that the DOC failed to ensure that health records were complete and contained specified information, and failed to adhere to agreed upon protocols for medication dispensation and administration, including allowing Nurse Practitioners to prescribe medications and requiring sick prisoners to wait outdoors during inclement weather for medication, a cruel disregard for the health of sick prisoners...." In addition, plaintiffs contended that prison officials remained unduly in control of medical decisions.

To resolve the contempt issues, the parties entered into mediation on November 12 and 13, 2003. A settlement agreement was ultimately reached which, when by the court, will resolve plaintiff's contempt motion and. result in the final dismissal of the case.

Under the agreement, the DOC would pay $500,000 into a settlement fund which would be administered by King County Superior Court Judge Steven G. Scott. Judge Scott determined that of the total, $81,898 would be used to cover litigation costs, and $125,000 used to pay plaintiffs' attorneys' fees. Judge Scott noted that plaintiffs' actual attorney fees, based on hourly rates, were $860,000 and that, even though attorneys in these types of cases typically perform much of their work pro bono), it would be unreasonable to expect counsel to accept less than 25% of the total recovery, especially where their actual fees were well in excess of the settlement amount.

The remaining $239,000 would be used to create a fund to benefit the prisoners. Ultimately, attorneys and representatives for the plaintiff class decided the best use of the fund would be to have it managed by a non-profit organization [the Legal Foundation of Washington agreed to manage it] not associated with the Department of Corrections to be used, for as long as the Fund lasts, for the purpose of hiring an independent Patient Advocate to assist prisoners in addressing their complaints about health care services at WCCW." Specifics were not available.

After some legal wrangling over wording and content, the settlement notice, which provides the plaintiff class with an opportunity to object, was approved on March 30, 2004. A hearing to decide whether or not to approve the settlement was pending.

Plaintiffs were represented by Columbia Legal Services, Institutions Project, 101 Yesler Way, Suite 301, Seattle, Washington 98104. PLN has reported on this case extensively. See indexes for more. See: Hallett v. Stewart, USDC WD WA, Case No. C93-5496-FDB.

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Related legal case

Hallett v. Stewart