Judge scolds Allegheny County lawyer for foot-dragging

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Allegheny County is beefing up its corps of attorneys handling inmate lawsuits and seeking a meeting with federal judges following a string of sanctions and lectures from magistrates upset at lawyerly foot-dragging.

This month judges have ordered county lawyers to cover a plaintiff attorney's hotel and airfare, to pay for opposing counsel's time and to line up jail officers for depositions. One judge barred the county from using oft-delayed depositions in coming motions.

"It is our objective to handle these cases capably," county solicitor Andrew Szefi said, following the latest public scolding of one of his staff members Friday. "We will continue to do that."

He is adding another lawyer to the three now assigned to jail cases, and wants to talk generally with federal judges about the handling of the lawsuits.

Those announcements came after U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Reed Eddy ordered assistant solicitor Craig Maravich to personally pay for the 21/2 hours opposing counsel spent filing motions demanding the full names of corrections officers who may be witnesses in a death case.

Mr. Maravich said he complied with Judge Eddy's earlier order to provide names. But plaintiff's counsel Wayne Ely said the county initially gave him partial names and illegible records.

Judge Eddy called the county's repeated failure to turn over records and schedule depositions, despite her orders, "either neglect or intentional delay tactics."

"Where does Allegheny County get the money to pay your salary?" she 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."

"We feel that we were compliant" with the orders, Mr. Szefi said. "Clearly, the judge did not see it that way, and we will respect and abide by that decision."

The case involves the 2012 death of Derek E. Black, 28, of Bethel Park. Jailed on drug and theft charges, he fought with another inmate and was denied medical treatment until it was too late, according to the lawsuit. His family has sued the county and 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 canceled by the county.

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.

"Most judges at some point will lose patience, especially if there doesn't seem to be any good reason not to comply with [a discovery] order," said Rhonda Wasserman, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

In another jail-related case, Judge Eddy on Friday ordered Mr. Maravich to provide videotapes and documents requested throughout last year, plus depositions.

Early this month in another case involving sexual assaults on an inmate by a former corrections officer, U.S. Magistrate Judge Maureen Kelly ordered the county to provide long-withheld information and to pay $2,000 to plaintiff's attorney Stephen Misko.

She barred the county from using testimony from delayed depositions in any motion for summary judgment it might file in any effort to have the lawsuit thrown out.

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or on Twitter @richelord.

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