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Federal judge rips Allegheny County again for not responding promptly in jail lawsuits

For the third time this month, a federal judge issued sanctions today in response to the failure by Allegheny County attorneys to follow court orders in jail-related litigation

By Rich Lord
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

ALLEGHENY COUNTY, Pa. — For the third time this month, a federal judge issued sanctions today in response to the failure by Allegheny County attorneys to follow court orders in jail-related litigation.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Reed Eddy today ordered county attorney Craig E. Maravich to personally pay the bill of plaintiff’s attorney Wayne Ely for 2 ½ hours that the latter spent writing a motion. Mr. Ely, continuing a lengthy battle with the county over records, had motioned for sanctions after Mr. Maravich provided him with only partial names of jail corrections officers who could be witnesses in a death case, despite Judge Eddy’s order to provide the guards’ full identities.

The judge asked Mr. Ely to discount his $325-an-hour rate, but that would still mean that Mr. Maravich faces hundreds of dollars of penalties, on top of the sting of a judicial tongue lashing.

Judge Eddy called the county’s repeated failure to turn over records and schedule depositions, even despite court orders, “either neglect or intentional delay tactics.

“Where does Allegheny County get the money to pay your salary?” the judge asked Mr. Maravich. “It’s the taxpayers of Allegheny County, isn’t that right?

“These motions and these tactics are costing the county taxpayers money and they’re costing the federal taxpayers money.”

Judge Eddy is overseeing a lawsuit filed by survivors of a man who died in the jail in 2012.

Derek E. Black, 28, of Bethel Park, was jailed on drug and theft charges, got in a fight with another inmate and was denied medical treatment until it was too late to treat resulting pulmonary conditions, according to the lawsuit. His family has sued the county and its former jail medical provider, Allegheny Correctional Health Services.

Mr. Ely, representing the Black family, reported last month that depositions of 21 corrections officers were scheduled, but then were all abruptly cancelled by the county. He also told the judge that the county ignored his document requests for months at a time.

On Feb. 3, Judge Eddy ordered the county to line up the guards and other witnesses for depositions March 11 through 14, and to pay for Mr. Ely’s airfare and two nights in a hotel.

"We feel that we were compliant with the [Feb. 3] order," county solicitor Andrew Szefi said. "Clearly, the judge did not see it that way and we will respect and abide by that decision."

He said he has requested a meeting with the federal judges "to discuss generally the handling of [jail-related] cases."

He added that he is in the process of boosting the corps of lawyers assigned to jail cases from three to four.

"It is our objective to handle these cases capably," he said. "We will continue to do that."

In a subsequent hearing on another case today, Judge Eddy ordered Mr. Maravich to promptly provide a crucial video, documents requested throughout last year and depositions.

That case, filed in late 2012, stems from incidents in which Vincent J. Demor, now 44, was found hanging by a sheet from his cell twice, in 2009 and in 2011. The second time, according to the lawsuit, he suffered a brain injury that requires lifelong institutionalization.

His mother has sued, arguing that the county should have known, in 2011, that Mr. Demor had a history of heroin addiction, depression and suicidal behavior, and should have taken preventive steps. The plaintiff’s attorney, Gary Lang, said today that some suicide watch duties were turned over to inmates, who beat up Mr. Demor just prior to his second attempt.

Mr. Lang filed a motion Jan. 29 complaining that the county had provided “insufficient and incomplete” responses to information requests, including a request for the videotape that purportedly shows Mr. Demor on the date of his second attempted suicide, and scheduled depositions of various county employees, only to cancel them.

Judge Eddy said she would order the county to comply with all of the requests within a month.

Early this month, another judge sanctioned the county in yet another jail case.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Maureen Kelly is handling a lawsuit filed by a woman who was sexually assaulted while an inmate in the jail. Former corrections officer Charles L. Walker pleaded guilty to a count of institutional sexual assault, and he has been deposed in the case, said the woman’s attorney, Stephen Misko, at a Feb. 3 hearing.

The county, though, ignored court orders to provide copies of the woman’s jail records, rosters of corrections officers, responses to interrogatories, four depositions, internal emails and other information, Mr. Misko said.

Attorney Stanley Winikoff, representing the county in that case, admitted then that the county’s responsiveness was “woefully inadequate.”

Judge Kelly ordered the county to provide the information and to pay Mr. Misko $2,000. She barred the county from using the delayed deposition testimony in any motion for summary judgment it might file in an effort to nix the lawsuit.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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