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$4.25 Million Paid by King County for Two Jail Beatings By Improperly Housed Mentally Ill Detainees

by Mark Wilson

On March 29, 2022, the federal courtfor the Western District of Washington approved a $3 million settlement between King County and a mentally ill man who suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) when savagely beaten by a cellmate that jail officials allegedly knew was dangerous and psychotic, having restricted him to single-cell status for a long history of assaultive behavior.

In 1989, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington secured a settlement on behalf those incarcerated in the King County Jail (KCJ) to protect them from assault by fellow prisoners and detainees. Known as the “Hammer Agreement,” it remains in effect today and requires the county to properly identify and classify violent, assaultive and aggressive prisoners, using that classification to ensure appropriate housing decisions.

In August 2017, after threatening two strangers with a knife and punching one of them, Toby Meagher was arrested and booked into KCJ. With a long history of mental illness, it was his 20th incarceration at the jail. That same month, another mentally ill detainee broke out of restraints at Washington State Hospital (WSH) and attacked several employees, knocking one unconscious. The second detainee, Troy Leae, returned to KCJ on April 25, 2018. WSH sent along a warning of his continuously assaultive behavior. But that information allegedly never made it past Cathleen Bozek, the employee reviewing the report the next day.

Meanwhile Meagher was sent to WSH after he assaulted a KCJ guard. He was found to suffer from schizo-affective disorder and other mental illness symptoms that “impaired his ability to rationally understand court proceedings and assist his defense,” according to court documents. These included “auditory hallucinations,” a belief that staffers were “raping him in his sleep” and that his “relatives had been replaced by others with similar looks.” Nevertheless, when he returned to KCJ on July 1, 2018, he was not placed in psychiatric housing despite exhibiting acute psychotic symptoms.

Leae, who was initially housed in KCJ’s psychiatric unit, had his classification level lowered by employee Gregg Curtis, who moved him into a double cell. That lasted just 13 days before Leae claimed that his cellmate assaulted him. Without investigating further, KCJ employee Rodney Prioleau moved Leae into Meagher’ s cell on July 8, 2018.

At once, Leae, who is 5’11” and 313 pounds, began threatening Meagher, who is just 5’9” and 145 pounds. Meagher repeatedly pleaded with guard Joseph Garcia to move to another cell. But Garcia refused, telling Meagher to “handle it himself.” Another prisoner later reported that Meagher looked like “he knew something was going to happen.”

And it did happen. Just seven days later, on July 15, 2018, Leae carried out his threats. He “bashed [Meagher’s] face against the cell’s steel sink and stomped on his head, which bounced hard against the concrete floor,” according to the complaint. Leae continued beating Meagher “even after his body lay unconscious beneath a flurry of punches, stomps and kicks.” Only after he “was tackled and tased” did Leae stop, turning his rage against guards. The cell floor and stainless-steel sink were soaked in blood. Meagher’ s face was beaten beyond recognition. Some guards feared he was dead.

Meagher was transported to a hospital, where he was treated for TBI, a broken nose and facial bones, broken teeth, nerve damage in his face and lacerations and bruising all over his body. The attack also caused acute memory loss, altered speech and greatly exacerbated Meagher’s anxiety, confusion, paranoia and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Garcia submitted a supplemental report four days after the attack, admitting that on the day of the beating Meagher had asked to move to another cell because he was afraid of Leae – a request Garcia did not grant or pass on to supervisors. The next day, Sgt. Craw informed Maj. Clark that Meagher reportedly “told officers Inmate Leae was going to attack him,” but no one “took any steps to properly house Mr. Meagher or otherwise protect (him) from this brutal and foreseeable beating,” the complaint continued.

King County prosecutors eventually charged Leae with felony assault for the attack on Meagher, as well as the earlier attack on another detainee. The prosecutor later gave notice of intent to raise the Meagher charges to either first-degree assault or attempted murder. When Meagher’s lawsuit was filed one year after the attack, he “still struggle[d] to string a sentence together,” according to one of his attorneys.

Through a guardian ad litem, Meagher sued King County and eight KCJ employees, alleging failure to protect, as well as making state negligence and breach of Hammer Agreement claims. The court denied qualified immunity to defendants Garcia, Curtiss and Classifications Program Specialist Rodney Prioleau on July 9, 2020. See: Meagher v. King County, 2020 U.S.Dist.LEXIS 120963 (W.D. Wash.). Defendants then filed an interlocutory appeal, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed and remanded the case for trial on August 27, 2021. See: Meagher v. Prioleau, 857 Fed. Appx. 908 (9th Cir. 2022). The full Ninth Circuit denied rehearing en banc on October 5, 2021. See: Meagher v. Prioleau, 2021 U.S.App.LEXIS 29933 (9th Cir. 2021).

The parties then proceeded to reach their settlement agreement. It included $12,057.50 in guardian fees and $1,234,656.43 in fees and costs for Meagher’s attorneys, Tomas A. Gahan and Felix Gavi Luna of the Seattle, Washington law firm of Peterson, Wampold, Rosato, Feldman & Luna. That left $1,753,286.07 for Meagher, now 48. See: Meagher v. King County, USDC (W.D. Wa.), Case No. 2:19-cv-00259.

“We deeply regret the injuries that Mr. Meagher suffered,” said County spokesperson Noah Haglund. “In light of this incident and others, we have increased the training that Jail Health Services staff receive about sharing appropriate medical information with their ... colleagues.”

Those “other” incidents included a $1.25 million settlement reportedly paid four months earlier to another KCJ detainee, Abdiwali Musse. He was allegedly beaten by another mentally ill prisoner who also should have been single-celled, Carl Alan Anderson, during a “30-hour meth-fueled rampage” in November 2015. Musse’s claims were filed in the same district court in December 2018 with the aid of attorney Jay H. Krulewitch, along with fellow Seattle attorneys Tiffany A. Cartwright and Timothy M. Ford of Macdonald Hoague & Bayless.

After surviving Defendants’ motion for summary judgment on April 16, 2021, Plaintiffs discovered KCJ failed to preserve video footage of the attack and moved for spoliation sanctions; those were partially granted on October 8, 2021, when the Court found “the prejudice to Musse is severe” and sent the case to a December 2021 trial, instructing that the jury “may assume that the footage would have tended to corroborate Plaintiff’s evidence and to undermine any contrary evidence.” See: Musse v. King Cty., 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 73579 (W.D. Wash.); and 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 195221 (W.D. Wash.).

Before trial, the parties reached their settlement, and notice of the undocketed agreement was filed with the Court on November 9, 2021. See: Musse v. King Cty., USDC (W.D. Wash.), Case No. 2:18-cv-01736.

Additional source: Seattle Times

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