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Bad Lawyering, Bankruptcy Torpedo Suit Over Delaware Prisoner’s Death

by Jayson Hawkins

After a long run of bad news,formerDelaware prison health care contractor Connections Community Support Programs (CCSP) caught a break when a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit involving a prisoner’s withdrawal death after a CCSP nurse lied about providing methadone. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit then affirmed that decision on April 4, 2023.

The suit was filed on behalf of Tiffany Reeves, 37, who died not long after her 2018 arrest for $177 in outstanding fines. The mother of three was on methadone while withdrawing from heroin. But a CCSP nurse at Sussex Correctional Institution (SCI), Erin Clark-Penland, failed to administer the medication, and she then attempted a cover-up with falsified records and false statements to law enforcement. She was convicted on misdemeanor record-tampering charges in August 2021. [See: PLN, Dec. 2021, p.61.] In October 2021, she received a six-month probated sentence, and her license was suspended for two years.

With the aid of Wilmington attorney Christofer Curtis Johnson of the Johnson Firm LLC, Reeves’ mother, Janice Grossnickle, filed suit in federal court for the District of Delaware, alleging her daughter’s civil rights were violated by CCSP; state Department of Corrections (DOC) Director Perry Phelps; DOC Bureau of Correctional Healthcare Services Chief Marc Richman; and SCI Warden Robert May.

On January 28, 2022, a visibly frustrated Judge Stephanus Bilbus dismissed the suit without prejudice, placing the blame squarely on Johnson’s shoulders for failing to serve Defendants within 120 days, and also failing to serve state legal officials, as required by rules of the state court where the case was originally filed.

“The mother’s lawyer shirked both requirements,” the Court noted. “He served the prison officials two months late … To boot, he neglected to serve the Attorney General, her Chief Deputy, or the State Solicitor.” Once the case was removed to federal court, the Court continued, “the lawyer could have cured the defect,” as provided under 28 U.S.C. § 1448.

“He did not,” the Court declared. “Because he has not shown good cause for these missteps,” the complaint was dismissed without prejudice under Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(m), 12(b)(5).

“This tragic suit makes serious allegations about an inmate’s mistreatment in jail,” Judge Bilbus noted. “It deserves equally serious lawyering, but the mother’s lawyer fell short.”

Meanwhile, DOC dropped CCSP as its healthcare provider. The firm was also hit with a $15.4 million judgment for narcotics fraud and Medicare fraud. CCSP then filed for bankruptcy, first attempting to reorganize under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code before eventually deciding to liquidate under Chapter 7 in September 2021. [See: PLN, Dec. 2021, p.22.]

Johnson, a former candidate for state attorney general and former deputy legal counsel to Gov. John Carney (D), then turned to Third Circuit. But again the case sank on procedural error; the district court’s order was not appealable, the Court said, because only the individual defendants were dismissed, not CCSP. The bankruptcy court’s stay of all proceedings against the firm didn’t automatically change that, the Court added, noting also that Johnson could have done so by seeking a certificate of appealability under Fed. R. Civ. P. 54b. But he didn’t, so the district court’s judgment was affirmed. See: Grossnickle v. Connections Cmty. Support Programs Inc., 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 7942 (3d Cir.).

The litany of failures at CCSP might be bad press for DOC and other state officials, but thus far it does not appear that any policy makers are ready to start questioning the use of for-profit medical providers for state-run programs in prisons or disadvantaged communities.

Additional source: AP News