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Settlement in California Jail Suit Includes $4.8 Million in Attorney Fees, Costs

After four prisoners committed suicide in the Salinas branch of the Monterey County, California jail system within a five-year period, a class-action lawsuit was filed in 2013 against both the jail and California Forensic Medical Group, alleging substandard intake procedures, medical care and mental health treatment.

Shortly after an injunction was issued by the federal court in favor of the plaintiffs, the parties reached a preliminary settlement in May 2015. Pursuant to that settlement, the parties agreed “to develop a series of implementation plans to enhance services at the Monterey County Jail,” according to a joint press release.

On April 14, 2015, U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul S. Grewal had issued a 44-page preliminary injunction requiring jail officials to improve the facility’s tuberculosis screening program, alcohol treatment program and medicine dispensing procedures. According to the injunction, potential hanging points will also have to be removed from cells in the segregation unit, to mitigate suicides.

Further, jail officials and medical staff had 60 days to submit a detailed plan to remediate alleged constitutional and statutory violations. Negotiations between the parties had stalled after the lawsuit was certified by the court as a class-action. Four impartial experts had examined conditions at the jail, but efforts by the parties to agree on implementation of their findings were unsuccessful.

In addition to conditions at the jail that the plaintiffs argued had contributed to suicides, prisoners had complained that staff failed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), treatment of incoming prisoners with alcohol and drug problems, and timely administering of prescription medications. Those issues also were addressed in the preliminary injunction.

The district court held the jail was required to implement national standards for the diagnosis, treatment and tracking of tuberculosis; provide assessment and withdrawal treatment; conduct health and safety checks of all prisoners held in segregation at least every 30 minutes; identify and accommodate prisoners with disabilities in compliance with ADA regulations; and provide qualified sign language interpreters for prisoners who need them.

Magistrate Judge Grewal found that the class-action suit was “likely to succeed on the merits,” one of the criteria for issuance of a preliminary injunction, and also noted the injunction was “in the public interest.” At the time the injunction was issued, one of the attorneys representing the prisoners, Gay Grunfield of Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP, said, “We are pleased that after almost two years of litigation, our clients and the public will benefit from increased safety and health at the Monterey County Jail.”

In the end, the issuance of the preliminary injunction, which granted almost all of the relief sought by the plaintiffs, left Monterey County with few options other than a negotiated settlement – including a face-saving denial of responsibility for the substandard conditions at the jail.

On November 9, 2015, the district court awarded $4.8 million in attorney fees and costs, as the parties had agreed in the settlement. See: Hernandez v. County of Monterey, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 5:13-cv-02354-PSG.

Additional source: Salinas Connection

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Related legal case

Hernandez v. County of Monterey