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Class Action Member May File Independent Suit to Protect Individual Need

by David Reutter

A California federal district court granted limited injunctive relief to a state prisoner in a deliberate indifference suit against the California Correctional Training Facility (CTF) doctors. The court held that an individual member of a pending class action suit was not barred from seeking relief on individual needs not protected by the suit.

In 2003, California prisoner, Eric Gonzalez was attacked by a cellmate because he was a sex offender. As a result, Gonzalez developed serious panic attacks and PTSD symptoms including flashbacks, nightmares, paranoia, sleeping disorders, etc. as diagnosed by psychologist, Dr. Katz, in 2007.

In 2008, doctors unsuccessfully attempted to treat Gonzalez with medications and therapies. In October of 2008, the Mental Health Interdisciplinary Treatment Team (IDTT), inclusive of CTF's Dr. Katz, Dr. Bony, Ph.D., and Dr. Bill Zika concurred that Gonzalez had a serious mental health need that required placing him in a single cell for his safety. The IDTT recommended change of housing status to the "custody staff" who has authority to make housing changes.

In 2008, Gonzalez was placed in a single cell. In 2009, psychiatrist, Dr. Hutchinson interviewed Gonzalez and confirmed the diagnosis, added that Gonzalez's panic attacks are made worse by double celling. In 2010, psychologist, Dr. Garbarino also recommended a one year extension of Gonzalez's single cell status.

In 2011, Dr. Zika and Dr. Garbarino changed their recommendation, allegedly based on budgetary and single cell availability concerns, and requested Gonzalez's return to double cell housing. The custody staff made the change, and immediately Gonzalez suffered severe panic attacks. Dr. Kohler examined Gonzalez and reported that, "housing with a cellie is not therapeutic but poses real threat to patient." However, no corrective action was taken.

Gonzalez filed the 42 U.S.C. § 1983 complaint against Dr. Zika and Dr. Garbarino alleging that they were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical and mental health needs. He asserted that medical records would show that the diagnosis and prognosis in his case had not changed for years. Yet the defendants disregarded his medical needs in favor of non-medical concerns.

The defendants moved to bar the complaint because Gonzalez was a member of a pending class action suit and should not be allowed to file an individual suit. The district court denied that motion and held that a class member has standing to file an individual complaint if the class action suit will not protect his specific needs.

The district court held that Gonzalez's serious medical needs were not contested and were accepted as proven. The court also held that precedent law as set in the Ninth Circuit Court provided that "irreparable harm" exists, for preliminary injunctive relief, where there is an injury to a constitutional right because the harm, "cannot be remedied through damages."

The district court held that Gonzalez's exposure to irreparable harm outweighed the defendants' financial concerns and the public interest in providing adequate medical and mental health care required relief. However, because the CTF custody staff had to make housing changes, and they were not listed as defendants, the court could not order the IDTT to place Gonzalez back in single cell housing.

Under the principle of "status quo ante litem," or the last uncontested status controls, Gonzalez was entitled to a return to single cell housing but because the complaint listed the IDTT, the court was limited to ordering the IDTT to submit a recommendation for single cell housing to the CTF custody staff. The court also granted leave for Gonzalez to file an amended complaint if the custody staff failed to follow the IDTT recommendation. He could add the custody staff as defendants.

See: Gonzalez v. Zika, no. C11-5561, F. Supp. 2d (N.D. Cal. 2012).

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