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$175,000 Awarded to Former California Detainee Whose Suit Prompted DOJ Investigation and Settlement Requiring Structural Changes at Jail

by Douglas Ankney

In June 2021, former San Luis Obispo County Jail detainee Steven J. York was awarded $175,000 to settle a lawsuit that also prompted an investigation of the jail by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). In addition to the monetary award, the settlement agreement requires Defendants San Luis Obispo County and its Sheriff’s Office to implement substantial changes to the jail’s physical structure and policies.

According to York’s 42 U.S.C. §1983 complaint, he suffers from cirrhosis and hepatitis, and his left leg is amputated below the knee, leaving him “mobility impaired.” While held at the jail from June 2018 until June 2019, jail policies explicitly excluded him from educational, vocational and recreational services, as well as the privileges available to those assigned in “honor housing,” based solely on his disability, he claimed.

Additionally, he fell in September 2018 while using a shower that did not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. ch.126 § 12101, et seq.; breaking bones in the unamputated part of his leg, that left him unable to use his prosthetic leg, so he was then confined to a wheelchair. However he was housed in cells not designed to accommodate wheelchairs. By the time of his release in June 2019, he was still in a wheelchair and his fractured leg had not been repaired.

York also developed internal bleeding while incarcerated and began vomiting blood and passing blood in his stool. His requests for medical treatment were generally ignored for seven days until he suddenly lost consciousness. Then, because the jail had neither medical facilities nor cells designated as medical beds, York was placed on a bare concrete floor in the Inmate Reception Center for three days, during which he almost bled to death. When he was finally transported to a hospital, he required a 21-day stay due to the delay in getting medical treatment.

With the assistance of San Luis Obispo attorney Trace Milan, York filed suit in April 2021, raising eight causes of action for alleged violations of his federal and state rights. The settlement included costs and fees for the attorney. See: York v. San Luis Obispo Cty., Cal. Super. (Cty. of San Luis Obispo), Case No. 19CV-0397.

The suit also described the ADA disability discrimination and substandard conditions he endured. That prompted the investigation by the DOJ that led to its Agreement, which requires Defendants to cease discriminating against or excluding “qualified inmates with mobility disabilities from participation in, or deny[ing] such inmates the benefits of [the Jail’s] services, programs, or activities, including, but not limited to, education, vocational, recreation, and religious services, programs, and activities, and telephones, on the basis of the inmates’ disabilities, 42 U.S.C. § 12132; 28 C.F.R. §35.130(a).”

Defendants “shall ensure that its facilities at [the Jail] are accessible to and usable by inmates with mobility disabilities....” and “shall ensure that all inmates with mobility disabilities are housed in cells with the accessible elements necessary to afford inmates access to safe, appropriate housing,” the Agreement continued. This included structural modifications by a qualified architect to install showers with “grab bars, controls, a shower spray unit, a seat, curb, and enclosure” as well as installing toilets and urinals accessible to mobility impaired inmates.

Defendants were also required to post the “Notice of Rights for Inmates with Disabilities under the [ADA];” designate at least one employee as ADA Coordinator; provide a mechanism for resolving ADA grievances by detainees and staff; and train jail employees with regard to the ADA and discrimination against detainees with disabilities. See: Settlement Agreement Between United States and San Luis Obispo Cty., DJ No. 204-12C-506, USAO No. 2018V01548.

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Related legal cases

York v. San Luis Obispo Cty.

Settlement Agreement Between United States and San Luis Obispo Cty.