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Second Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment for Non-Treatment of Prisoner’s HCV

On March 9, 2012, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of a New York prisoner’s claims related to denial of hepatitis C (HCV) treatment. The Second Circuit also determined that the district court had misinterpreted a settlement agreement’s cost recovery provisions.

The New York State Department of Correctional Services (NYDOCS) was aware that state prisoner Robert Hilton suffered from HCV when he entered the prison system in April 2003. However, he was denied medical treatment because his sentence was too short. Hilton was released almost a year later, untreated, but was quickly convicted of a new offense and returned to NYDOCS custody in August 2004.

Following a lengthy screening process, NYDOCS medical staff recommended that Hilton receive HCV treatment. But Dr. Lester Wright, the NYDOCS’s Chief Medical Officer and Assistant Commissioner, “refused to allow treatment because he determined that Hilton was ineligible under existing DOCS guidelines – guidelines which he himself had promulgated.” Hilton was denied treatment based on his past drug use, and was required to complete a NYDOCS substance abuse pro-gram before he would be considered for HCV treatment.

Hilton attempted to enroll in a substance abuse program but was deemed “ineligible because, as gauged by the earliest date of possible release, he was not going to be in prison long enough to complete the program.” He continued to seek HCV treatment and Dr. Wright later “concluded that Hilton was a ‘non-responder’ who would not benefit from antiviral treatment.”

On August 17, 2005, Hilton filed a federal lawsuit against Wright and NYDOCS, and sought a temporary restraining order requiring Wright to authorize HCV treatment.
Wright stipulated that he would authorize the treatment, which commenced immediately. Hilton received HCV treatment until September 2006, when it was officially deemed a “failure”; he again attempted treatment following his release from prison but it was still unsuccessful.

Hilton amended his complaint to assert claims on behalf of all NYDOCS prisoners who were denied HCV treatment, seeking damages and equitable relief for violations of the Eighth Amendment, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12132 and the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 705. He alleged that NYDOCS imposed improper barriers to HCV treatment so as to limit the number of prisoners who received treatment in order to save money.

In February 2006, the district court granted class certification as to the injunctive relief claims. [See: PLN, March 2007, p.33]. The parties subsequently entered into a settlement agreement resolving those claims. The January 2008 agreement permanently eliminated the substance abuse treatment requirement and required NYDOCS to identify and treat prisoners who had been denied HCV treatment based on that requirement.

“The Settlement Agreement also called for payment to class counsel of fees for attorney and paralegal time used monitoring the Agreement’s implementation for a two-year period. The award of those fees was capped at $20,000, subject to discretionary upward adjustment by the district court.”

Following the settlement, only Hilton’s damages claims against Wright and NYDOCS remained. Eventually, the district court granted summary judgment to the defendants on those claims, concluding, in a single paragraph, that there was no genuine issue of material fact and Dr. Wright was entitled to qualified immunity.

While monitoring the settlement agreement, class counsel was flooded with prisoner correspondence, requiring them to hire an assistant to “enter data and manage” the letters received from prisoners. Counsel was also required to coordinate several mass-mailings to approximately 700 potential class members and retain translation services to communicate with non-English speaking class members.

Counsel moved for $23,152 in attorney’s fees and $17,000 in expenses, “mostly incurred paying the hired assistant.” The district court granted the full amount of the requested fees but denied the $17,000 in expenses.

On appeal, the Second Circuit vacated the summary judgment order due to “the extreme brevity of the district court’s opinion.” Additionally, the qualified immunity decision was found to be “entirely conclusory.” The appellate court instructed the lower court to indicate on remand why there were no material facts in dispute.

The Court of Appeals also noted that “the district court seems to have interpreted the Agreement to affirmatively preclude recovery of ... costs,” but found “no support for this position in the language of the Agreement.” As such, “to the extent that out-of-pocket costs combined with attorney’s fees exceeded the Agreement’s $20,000 limit, the district court has discretion to raise the limit.”

Since the district court did not exercise that discretion, the Second Circuit remanded the case “for further consideration of the issue of Hilton’s out-of-pocket expenses,” and instructed the district court “to consider whether such costs should be awarded” pursuant to the settlement agreement. See: Hilton v. Wright, 673 F.3d 120 (2d Cir. 2012).

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Related legal case

Hilton v. Wright