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Alabama DOC: Partial Settlement on ADA, Mental Health Claims; $1 Million in Attorney Fees Awarded

by David M. Reutter

The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) has agreed to a partial settlement to ensure prisoners with disabilities receive treatment and services under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The settlement resolves portions of a class-action lawsuit that also raises claims related to medical and mental health care provided to prisoners.

ADOC prisoners with disabilities are often housed in facilities that cannot safely accommodate them, the lawsuit argued. Some offenders have been placed in units with higher security classifications for no reason other than their disabilities.

The June 2014 complaint described how a wheelchair-bound prisoner was forced to maneuver deeper into the prison – against the flow of prisoners – to access a wheelchair ramp. The partial settlement, filed on March 15, 2016, resolved Phase 1 of the bifurcated litigation, which dealt with ADA violations. [See: PLN, May 2016, p.1].

The agreement requires the parties to develop a plan “to provide for care, services, accommodations, programs, and activities” for disabled prisoners. It also provides that such prisoners will be placed in housing “that is fully accessible and compliant with the ADA” to meet their “particular disability or disabilities.” Prisoners may be subject to “clustering,” which means they may be held at specific facilities to allow better access to meet their needs. Security levels must be determined without regard to their disabilities.

The settlement plan requires screening and identification of disabled prisoners; once identified, they will be tracked and transferred “as soon as reasonably practicable” to an accommodating facility. Additionally, prisoners with mental health disabilities will have equal access to educational and rehabilitative classes and programs; life skills and adaptive behavior classes will be offered for offenders with intellectual disabilities; and procedures will be implemented for requesting ADA accommodations and appealing denials.

The ADOC will also hire ADA coordinators and implement an ADA grievance system. All ADOC personnel will be trained in the ADA’s provisions and requirements, and the agreement provides for monitoring to ensure compliance. Another portion of the settlement, approved by the court in May 2017, addressed involuntary medication of seriously mentally ill prisoners.

Alabama prison officials agreed to pay class counsel around $1 million in attorney fees and costs for claims related to Phase 1 of the litigation. They also agreed to pay $195 an hour for attorney fees related to plan creation and monitoring.

On November 11, 2016, the district court dismissed claims regarding the ADOC’s failure to identify, track or accommodate the mental health needs of prisoners on death row. A two-month bench trial was held on the remaining Phase 2A claims related to mental health care, beginning in December 2016.

A settlement on Phase 2A of the litigation was granted preliminary approval by the district court following a hearing in February 2017. Previously, the court had found that the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program (ADAP) was not required to comply with the exhaustion requirement set forth in 42 U.S.C. 10807(a), which “allows the immediate filing, without any attempt at exhaustion, of ‘any legal action instituted to prevent or eliminate imminent serious harm to a mentally ill individual.’” In this case, the ADAP had alleged that ADOC policies “created a grave risk of severe harm to mentally ill prisoners on a daily basis, including deficiencies in crisis care such as permitting access by suicidal prisoners to razors.”

Final approval of Phase 2A of the settlement was entered by U.S. District Court Judge Myron H. Thompson in July 2017, who had declared the ADOC’s mental health care system “horrendously inadequate” in a 302-page order issued the previous month.

“ADOC officials admitted on the stand that they have done little to nothing to fix problems on the ground, despite their knowledge that those problems may be putting lives at risk,” Thompson wrote in his order, adding, “The skyrocketing suicide rate within ADOC in the last two years is a testament to the concrete harm that inadequate mental-health care has already inflicted on mentally ill prisoners.” He specifically cited the death of prisoner Jamie Lee Wallace, 24, who had testified in the case before committing suicide on December 15, 2016.

The case remains pending on Phase 2B claims in the litigation, concerning inadequate medical and dental care. The class members are represented by attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program and the law firms of Zarzaur Mujumdar & Debrosse, and Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz. See: Braggs v. Dunn, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:14-cv-00601-MHT-TFM; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 98755.

“For far too long, Alabama prisons have been little more than warehouses where many people struggling with mental illness have been hidden away and abandoned by the state,” noted Baker Donelson attorney Lisa Borden. “Once locked behind prison walls, in deplorable conditions with little or no treatment, any hope for improvement or recovery was lost, and many became more profoundly ill. We look forward to now having the opportunity for our clients to receive real treatment for their illnesses, and to seeing them afforded the basic dignity to which any human being is entitled.” 


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