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Washington State Mental Health Agency Held in Contempt; $14 Million in Fines Levied

by Derek Gilna

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington has held the state’s Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) in contempt in a class-action lawsuit. The contempt order was entered after the court determined, following extensive fact-finding, that DSHS had failed to follow the recommendations of a court-appointed monitor to eliminate service backlogs and provide mental health competency evaluations to pretrial detainees within seven days of their arrest.

According to the district court, “On April 2, 2015, this Court issued a permanent injunction requiring Defendants to cease violating the constitutional rights of Plaintiffs and class members by providing competency services in a timely manner.” The injunction noted that “Class members are all pretrial detainees waiting in jail for court-ordered competency services that Defendants are statutorily required to provide. Class members’ criminal cases are stopped and their trials cannot happen until Defendants provide these services.”

The district court was not pleased with DSHS’ failure to take remedial steps, months after the problem had been identified and the court directed the agency to resolve the backlog in competency evaluations. “Despite the allocation of tens of millions of dollars to solve the problems plaguing Washington’s failing forensic mental health system, Defendants have not taken all reasonable steps to provide timely services,” the court wrote. “Because Defendants have elected not to take all of the steps necessary to protect the rights of some of our most vulnerable citizens, Defendants have not demonstrated substantial compliance with this Court’s orders.”

As a result, the district court did its best to get DSHS’ attention by levying fines of $1,000 per day, per class member, in a July 7, 2016 contempt order. In a unique twist, the court directed that the money from the fines be distributed to those most affected by the state’s failure to provide mental health services.

“The funds collected through these sanctions will be used for diversion programming for the benefit of class members. These contempt fines will continue until Defendants demonstrate substantial compliance with the seven-day standard, thereby purging their contempt.”

Despite the stiff sanctions, the state did not move quickly towards compliance. The injunction in the case was modified in August 2016 to give the state 14 days rather than seven to provide competency evaluations to pretrial detainees, but DSHS continued to drag its heels.

On December 20, 2016, the court entered a combined judgment of $7,486,500 in fines, covering the time period from July 8 to December 14, 2016. Additional fines of $2,173,500 and $1,741,000 were levied in January and February 2017, respectively.

Further, the state was ordered to pay $1,267,769.10 in the plaintiffs’ attorney fees and $35,400.38 in costs in October 2016.

A stipulated settlement was reached in the case in March 2017, in which the parties agreed to “jointly generate outreach documents to inform state courts of their statutory obligations to provide orders for competency services within twenty-four hours,” and to notify state courts about the class-action litigation and injunction entered by the federal district court.

In addition, “DSHS shall complete in-jail competency evaluations within the shorter of either a) 14 days from receipt of order or b) 21 days from signature of order,” and the agency “shall admit class members for either inpatient competency evaluation or restoration within the shorter of either a) 7 days from receipt of order or b) 14 days from signature of order.”

The stipulated settlement was adopted by the district court on April 26, 2017, and the court imposed another $2,575,500 in contempt fines against the state in June. The defendants have appealed the contempt finding and attorney fee award, and this case remains pending. See: Trueblood v. Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Wash.), Case No. 2:14-cv-01178-MJP.

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Related legal case

Trueblood v. Washington State Department of Social and Health Services