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$5.5 Million Settlement to California Prisoner Left Incapacitated After Suicide Attempt at Santa Cruz County Jail

by Ed Lyon

On December 16, 2021, a federal court in California approved a $5.5 million settlement between Santa Cruz County and the estate of a former prisoner at the county jail whose attempt on his own life there left him an invalid.

Sometime after 11 a.m. on February 15, 2017, prisoner Antonio Neal Townsend, 22, attempted to hang himself during his very first hour of dayroom time in the administrative segregation wing of California’s Santa Cruz County jail. Another prisoner alerted guards, who cut Townsend down. Medical personnel managed to resuscitate him, but he suffered severe brain injury and now requires medical care for the rest of his life.

Townsend’s grandmother and Guardian ad Litem, Jacqueline Townsend —through her counsel, Pasadena attorneys John Burton and Dana Scruggs III of Cartwright, Scruggs, Fulton & Walther in Santa Cruz—filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California against the County, its Sheriff’s office and jail healthcare contractor California Forensic Medical Group (CFMG), as well as the county’s Health Services Behavioral Health Division, which provides mental healthcare at the jail through its privately contracted operator, Telecare Corporation.

The two claims under which relief was sought were first a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suit for depriving Townsend of constitutionally adequate medical and mental health care, as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, and another disability discrimination claim in violation of § 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act (RA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. Ch. 126 § 12101 et seq. (ADA).

The County, CFMG and Telecare Corporation filed for summary judgment on both claims, with Telecare arguing it was not a state actor. In response, Townsend asked the Court to use its “inherent power” to declare that Telecare was a state actor after all.

In its ruling on September 1, 2021, the Court did neither, holding that Telecare was too contractually and inextricably entwined with the County not to be a state actor, but that triable facts of medical indifference existed for a jury to consider. So it refused to grant summary judgment on the civil rights claims.

However, the Court granted Telecare’s motion on the ADA and RA claims. Telecare then urged a future judgment cap under California’s 1975 Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA). But the Court overruled this as “not well-taken,” since it was brought forth for the first time at the hearing, so Townsend had no opportunity to respond. Further, with MICRA being a state law, it may not limit damages in a federal case.

Summary judgment was denied as to the County’s civil rights claim but granted as to claims under ADA and RA, with the Court’s reasoning not too dissimilar from what it employed in reaching a similar decision for Telecare. CFMG was granted summary judgment on both claims and dismissed from the suit. See: Townsend v. Cty. of Santa Cruz, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 166228 (N.D. Cal.).

On November 12, 2021, the Court then issued an Interim Order finding reasonable a proposed settlement between the parties, which was later tweaked by the Court in its decision to disburse funds on December 12, 2021, providing a $5,500,000.00 gross settlement, less:

$221,654.011 in costs advanced; and

$2,111,338.402 to Plaintiff’s counsel, representing a 40% contingency fee; and

$670,797.963 in medical liens; leaving

$2,496,209.63 net for Plaintiff.

That amount was further reduced by $500,000 to purchase an annuity to fund Plaintiff’s needs. Another $1,224,793.80 of the share for Plaintiff’s counsel was used to purchase three annuities for their benefit. See: Townsend v. Cty. of Santa Cruz, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 219278 (N.D. Cal.); and Townsend v. Cty. of Santa Cruz, USDC (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 19-cv-00630. 

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