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Prisoners Win Three Jury Trials in Eastern District of California

On September 29, 2011, a Sacramento jury found that a prison doctor had violated state prisoner Christopher Kyle Prater’s civil rights, and awarded $10,000 in compensatory damages and $20,000 in punitive damages. Prater alleged that Dr. Paramvir Sahota, Chief Medical Officer at Folsom State Prison, was deliberately indifferent in denying his second level grievance and refusing a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) diagnostic procedure that had been approved by another physician, Dr. Benjamin Lee.

Prater finally obtained an MRI after he was transferred to another facility, and based on the results of that test received arthroscopic surgery to his left knee. The jury agreed that denial of the MRI resulted in long-term pain to Prater’s left leg and a more serious injury than if Sahota had followed Dr. Lee’s original recommendation.

Prater litigated the case pro se until the final pretrial conference, with the court denying his written motions for appointment of counsel seven times. At the pretrial conference, Prater orally requested a lawyer and U.S. District Court Judge Kimberly Mueller appointed a member of the pro bono panel, Rebecca L. Woodson of the San Francisco law firm of McKenna, Long & Aldridge, to represent him.

After the verdict, pro bono counsel ended up with a payday after all, when the court granted $45,000 in attorney fees – the maximum permitted under the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The defendants appealed the verdict and attorney fee award to the Ninth Circuit; the appeal was later dismissed by stipulated agreement, and on May 9, 2012 the district court affirmed the award of $45,000 in attorney fees, plus $2,759.39 in costs. See: Prater v. Sahota, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:06-cv-01993-KJM-GGH. The lesson for PLN readers is that federal judges will often wait until just before trial to appoint counsel in a prisoner’s civil rights case.

Another incident at Folsom State Prison led to another verdict for a pro se prisoner. Robert Franklin alleged that on January 7, 2007, guards Donald Butler, Todd Phillips and Shad Pulley ordered him to cuff up and escorted him from his cell. During the escort, Franklin fell to the ground and Butler dragged him twenty to thirty feet.

On November 10, 2011, a Sacramento jury found that Butler had violated Franklin’s Eighth Amendment right to be free from excessive force, and that the two other guards violated Franklin’s rights by failing to intervene. The jury awarded $1 each in nominal damages and a total of $10,000 in punitive damages against the three guards. The defendants have appealed the verdict to the Ninth Circuit. See: Franklin v. Bush, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:07-cv-00656-JAM-CKD.

Two months later, on January 12, 2012, a federal jury in Fresno awarded $3,000 in compensatory damages to Gerald L. Miller, Jr., a prisoner representing himself pro se. The jury found that prison medical employee Onisimo Rufino had violated Miller’s Eighth Amendment right to be free from deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs.

According to a pretrial order, Miller was involved in a fight with another prisoner on October 16, 2007 at Kern Valley State Prison. Rufino, who at the time worked as a Licensed Vocational Nurse, cleared Miller for placement in administrative segregation and failed to treat his broken right thumb. Miller was not approved for an X-ray of his thumb until a week after the incident.

The defendants appealed the verdict, but voluntarily dismissed the appeal in March 2012 after Miller agreed to accept the $3,000, less restitution that he owed, as the full and final judgment in the case. See: Miller v. Rufino, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 1:08-cv-01233-BTM-WMC.

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Related legal cases

Miller v. Rufino

Franklin v. Bush

Prater v. Sahota