Two federal magistrates scold Allegheny County for missing lawsuit deadlines

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Allegheny County regularly pays attorneys to defend against jail inmates' lawsuits, but today, in unusual back-to-back courtroom drubbings, it was ordered to help pay the attorneys who are suing it.

Two federal magistrate judges, in conferences on unrelated cases alleging abuses in the jail, scolded county attorneys and ordered them to pay one plaintiff's attorney's travel and hotel bill, and to pay another lawyer $2,000 to make up for time spent trying to wrangle information from the jail.

In the first of the two conferences, U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Eddy asked county attorney Craig Maravich why repeated deadlines that she set for completion of depositions in a jail death case were not met.

"Why haven't you followed the orders?" she asked. "Do [county employees] believe that the court's scheduling orders are not binding on them?"

"No," Mr. Maravich answered.

"Is this an issue of the county Law Department?" asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Maureen Kelly in the second of the conferences. "What's the issue?"

Attorney Stanley Winikoff, retained last year to help the county with a backlog of jail-related litigation, noted that both he and the judge used to be in private practice.

"Things got done," he said. "They don't get done in a similar way in the county Law Department."

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.

The Black family's attorney, Wayne Ely, who is based in the Philadelphia area, said depositions of 21 corrections officers were scheduled, but then were all abruptly cancelled by the county.

"It simply wasn't feasible for the jail," said Mr. Maravich.

"To produce a single guard? A single guard?" asked Judge Eddy.

"Yes," Mr. Maravich said.

She ordered the county to line up the guards and other witnesses for depositions March 11 through 14, and to pay for Mr. Ely's air fare and two nights in a hotel.

Judge 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.

The county, though, has 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.

Mr. Winikoff admitted that the county's responsiveness was "woefully inadequate."

Judge Kelly ordered the county to provide the information by the middle of next week, 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.

Mr. Winikoff protested the sanctions.

"This court has found that the county has repeatedly disregarded the orders of this court," the judge said. "Quite frankly, the sanctions could've been higher."

Rich Lord: or 412-263-1542. Twitter: @richelord.

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