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$4 Million Settlement in Class Action Challenging Unconstitutional Conditions at West Virginia Jail

by David M. Reutter


West Virginia Division of Corrections (WVDC) officials agreed to pay $4 million on November 8, 2023, to settle a class-action lawsuit alleging unconstitutional conditions at the Southern Regional Jail (SRJ) in Raleigh County. The settlement provided for a cash payment to current and former detainee class members and an award of attorney’s fees.

Class Representatives Michael D. Rose, Edward L. Harmon, Robert C. Church, Sr., Nicole Henry, Thomas Fleenor, Jr., William Bohn and Tonya Persinger alleged in their complaint that while detained at SRJ they were exposed to black mold in cells and showers; served spoiled food and milk; and kept in cells darkened by broken lights. They further alleged that poor security measures, including overcrowding and a failure to keep doors locked, resulted in assaults upon Rose and Harmon.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia certified a class of some 8,000 people held at SRJ from September 22, 2020, until the settlement’s filing just over three years later. The parties reached their agreement just weeks after a magistrate recommended to U.S. District Judge Frank Volk on October 30, 2023, that he largely deny the State’s motion to quash subpoenas compelling evidence from Gov. Jim Justice (R) and his Chief of Staff, Brian Abraham; the Court said it could not “ignore the glaring, yet overwhelming, testimonial evidence…supporting the Plaintiffs’ argument that the WVDC Defendants herein did nothing to prevent the spoliation of evidence,” including destroyed investigation results, erased emails between jail officials and discarded detainee grievances. See: Rose v. Sandy, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 194162 (S.D. W. Va.).

The $4 million settlement provided $50,000 for Tiffany Janowicz of Minnesota-based Rust Consulting as the claim administrator. Up to 35% of the settlement fund, as determined by the Court upon submission of a motion, was awarded to attorneys representing the class: Stephen P. New and Emilee Woolridge of Stephen P. New & Assoc. in Beckley; Amanda Taylor of Taylor, Hinkle & Taylor in Beckley; Timothy Lupardas and Zachary Whitten, both in Pineville; and Robert Dunlap, also in Beckley. Class Representatives were slated to receive $1,000 each in incentive awards. All Class members received proportionate shares of the remaining settlement funds based upon the duration of their incarceration: Those incarcerated 181 days or more received a full share with graduations to a quarter share for those held 3-45 days. The settlement did not resolve Class claims against Wexford Health Services and PrimeCare Medical of West Virginia, as well as the Commissions of seven counties that send detainees to SRJ. See: Rose v. Sandy, USDC (S.D. W.Va.), Case No. 5:22-cv-00405.

In the sordid tradition of many prison and jail medical providers, PrimeCare filed a Suggestion of Bankruptcy with the Court on January 18, 2024, when it sought court protection to liquidated assets under Ch. 7 of federal Bankruptcy Code; four days later, all discovery related to the firm in this case was stayed. Wexford, the successor healthcare provider at SRJ, then convinced the Court to dismiss all remaining claims against it on March 13, 2024; on the same date, the Court also dismissed the county commission defendants. Claims against Wexford may be refiled but not those against the county commissions. See: Rose v. Francis, 2024 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 44337 (S.D. W. Va.).

WVDC recorded 19 deaths at SRJ from March 2021 through March 2023. State records from 2009 to May 2023 showed that 177 people died in jails it runs, with 19% occurring since the beginning of 2023. There are 1,983 outstanding claims against SRJ and its medical providers. In November 2023, two guards pleaded guilty for their roles in one of the deaths, that of Quantez Burks. [See: PLN, May 2024, p.22.]. Trial for another six guards is currently set for July 2024. See: United States v. Holdren, USDC (S.D. W.Va.), Case No. 5:23-cr-00188.


Additional sources: Charleston Gazette-Mail, Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia Metro News, WVVA

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Rose v. Francis