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$2.4 Million Judgment Against Michigan Jail Doctor Convicted of Sexually Abusing Three Prisoners

by Mark Wilson

On July 8, 2022, the federal court forthe Eastern District of Michigan awarded $2.4 million in compensatory and punitive damages to three prisoners sexually abused in 2018 by a former physician at the county jail where they were held. Two years later, prosecutors secured a sexual abuse conviction against the doctor formerly employed by the privately contracted healthcare provider for the Macomb County Jail (MCJ), Correct Care Solutions, LLC – now Wellpath.

The disgraced doctor, Steven Cogswell, was hired as the jail’s new Medical Director in August 2018. He began sexually assaulting female prisoners almost immediately.

Samantha Bills, a former exotic dancer, was incarcerated in the jail on a probation violation in August and September 2018. Bills was upset when she was called to the medical unit on August 14, 2018, because the call interrupted her shower. She also felt ill, since she was detoxing from heroin. Plus, she did not know why she was being called to medical.

Cogswell began examining Bills by placing a stethoscope on her back. He then pretended to accidentally drop the stethoscope down the front of her shirt. When he pinched her breast, Bills froze and did not react. So, he reached into her pants and digitally penetrated her vagina. Bills again did not object or call for help.

“Same time next week?” Bills asked jokingly, also suggesting that Cogswell bring her tobacco or Vicodin next time.

The doctor scheduled Bills for a follow-up visit on August 20, 2018. She later did not recall if he sexually abused her during that visit. But he gave her chewing tobacco. When she saw Cogswell again on August 27, 2018, he gave her a bag of M&Ms and told her that she was becoming “an expensive date.” Then he groped her genitals.

Cogswell saw Bills a fourth time on September 10, 2018. He said she owed him nude photos in exchange for the tobacco and M&Ms. Ordering her to lift her shirt and pull down her pants, he photographed her vagina and then digitally penetrated it while touching his penis.

Meanwhile Stacey Glass was also a pretrial detainee at MCJ in August and September 2018. Cogswell saw her on September 13, 2018, claiming he needed to see her because of a medication he thought she was taking. When Glass complained of sciatica pain, Cogswell felt her back, then reached around, slid his hand into her pants and groped her genitals. Glass quickly closed her legs.

Finally, Rebekah Buetenmiller was serving a jail sentence in September 2018 when she asked to see a doctor because of stomach pain. On a visit on September 14, 2018, Cogswell had her lie on her back on the examination table and pushed on her stomach. Then he put his hands into her pants, groping her genitals and kissing her twice on the mouth. She left with prescriptions for Motrin 800 and a double mattress, plus a schedule of future appointments.

Those appointments did not happen, however, because Glass reported the incident to jail officials. They referred her to law enforcement to file charges. One day after learning of the allegations, on September 17, 2018, Wellpath suspended Cogswell. He was later fired and prosecuted on six counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct for his abuse of all three women. However, a jury ultimately convicted him of only a single count involving just one of the women. At his sentencing on February 20, 2020, Macomb County Circuit Court Judge James Biernat, Jr., told Cogswell, 54, “I don’t know why you would ruin your career for this insanity.”

His victims knew why he would, even if the judge didn’t. “I ... believe Dr. Cogswell is a sexual predator,” wrote one in her victim impact statement. “I don’t believe that this is the first time (he) did this, but I hope it’s the last. He should not just get a slap on the wrist.”

But, of course, that is exactly what he got. Facing a sentence up to 15 years in prison, Cogswell was ordered to serve just one year in jail, five years on probation and to register as a sex offender. He had already served four months in jail when he was sentenced.

With the aid of attorneys Jonathan R. Marko and Kristina R. Magyari of Marko Law, PLLC in Detroit, the three women filed suit against Cogswell, Macomb County, Wellpath, guard William Horan and several “Doe” Defendants, making constitutional and state tort claims stemming from Cogswell’s sexual abuse.

On January 20, 2022, the Court granted summary judgment to all Defendants except Cogswell, finding that “plaintiffs have not produced evidence that any of the defendants had knowledge of Cogswell’s conduct or his criminal tendencies at any time before the assaults took place.” See: Buetenmiller v. Macomb County, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11472 (E.D. Mich.).

Cogswell did not answer the complaint, so the Court entered a default judgment. Plaintiffs sought damages to the tune of $5 million each. At a hearing on the matter on June 28, 2022, Cogswell finally appeared. Representing himself, he cross-examined his victims.

“All the Plaintiffs described the profound effect that Cogswell’s sexual misconduct had on them, particularly because it occurred in an institutional setting that deprived them of the control and autonomy that unincarcerated individuals enjoy,” the Court declared on July 8, 2022. “They are entitled to a significant compensatory award, but not in the amount they demand.”

Instead, each was awarded $550,000, for a total of $1,650,000.

Finding “the requisite showing to justify a punitive damages award,” the Court added an additional $250,000 for each woman, bringing the total award to $2,400,000.

Meanwhile Plaintiffs appealed dismissal of the remaining defendants to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which affirmed that decision on November 18, 2022. See: Buetenmiller v. Macomb Cty. Jail, 53 F.4th 939 (6th Cir. 2022).

Losing the municipality’s deeper pockets put satisfaction of the judgment at risk, of course. Buetenmiller secured writs of garnishment for her $800,000 award on January 30, 2023, against two firms where Cogswell reportedly now works

Marko Law filed a Notice of Attorney’s Lien with the Court on February 16, 2023. Buetenmiller also picked up representation by attorney Aaron J. Scheinfield of Goldstein Bershad & Fried PC in Southfield, who filed the garnishment writs. See: Buetenmiller v. Cogswell, USDC (E.D. Mich.), Case No. 2:20-cv-11031.

Additional sources: Detroit News, Oakland Press

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