‘Torture’ case could cost Iowa taxpayers $5 million in legal fees

By: - July 3, 2020 10:30 am
nterior of an empty courtroom with gavel and sounding block on the desk.

After what it calls “a series of bungles,” the Iowa Department of Transportation is facing additional legal hurdles in its five-year effort to dispose of a small parcel land it owns in Wapello County. (Photo by Getty Images)

Iowa taxpayers could be hit with almost $5 million in legal expenses tied to a recent court decision finding the state had “tortured” youth housed at the Boys State Training School in Eldora.

In March, U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose held the state liable for violating the constitutional rights of children at the school, which houses troubled youth ordered there by the courts. She also ordered that a monitor be appointed to oversee a broad array of court-ordered comprehensive reforms at the school.

In her decision, the judge said the school, run by the Iowa Department of Human Services, violated the U.S. Constitution by providing inadequate mental health care, misusing solitary confinement, and using what she called a “torture” device — a restraint known as the “wrap,” which holds children immobile.

The decision followed more than two years of litigation in which DHS steadfastly denied wrongdoing. Now, the plaintiffs in the case are seeking $4,550,763 in attorneys’ fees, plus $390,363 in related expenses.

Although the plaintiffs’ legal fees are based on the relatively low hourly rates mandated by the Prison Reform Litigation Act, and are significantly less than the hourly rates charged by most attorneys in private practice, the plaintiffs say they invested thousands of hours in the case.

Of the $4.5 million in attorneys’ fees, $2.5 million is tied to the work of the nonprofit Children’s Rights Inc.; $1.5 million is related to the work of the law firm Ropes & Gray; and roughly $500,000 is tied to the work of Disability Rights Iowa, the congressionally chartered organization that advocates for the disabled in Iowa.

“This was a highly complex, difficult case, involving an extraordinarily large number of documents, which was fiercely defended by the office of the Iowa Attorney General,” the plaintiffs argue in their motion for the recovery of legal expenses.

The state points out that the plaintiffs prevailed in court on only some of their claims, not all of them, and argue the proposed fees are excessive, redundant or include unrecoverable expenses. The state is asking the judge to reduce the fee request by almost $4 million — an 87% reduction of what’s being sought by the plaintiffs.

In response, the plaintiffs argue the state’s claims are “nonsense” and that the state itself is responsible for the high cost of the litigation due to its refusal to acknowledge wrongdoing.

“The state fought this litigation and opposed the requested relief every step of the way,” the plaintiffs stated in a recent motion. “Only now, after the court’s trial order and with the assistance of the court-appointed monitor, are defendants implementing this long-needed, but long-resisted, reform. Defendants also advise that the three senior officials at the Boys State Training School that supported the state’s unconstitutional practices as trial witnesses — Mark Day, Lynn Allbee and Brett Lawrence — will soon be replaced.”

It’s not clear how much the state has spent on its defense of the case. In court filings, the plaintiffs’ allege that on multiple occasions, “the Iowa attorney general sent four or three attorneys to cover a single deposition — more than, or equal to, the number of plaintiffs’ attorneys.”

While the court has yet to rule on the request for attorneys’ fees, the state recently finalized its written plan to address problems at the school identified by the judge.

As part of that plan, the state is rejecting a proposal that only licensed professionals provide mental health services at the school. At the trial, the plaintiffs noted that one of the mental health experts used by the school was not licensed to practice psychology in Iowa outside of the school.

The state says the school “will continue to employ professionals who meet the state qualifications to hold their positions,” and those qualifications don’t include licensure by the state.

In her March 30 decision, Judge Rose wrote that the school’s use of certain physical restraints “shocks the conscience,” adding that she was particularly disturbed by the state’s “deliberate indifference” to the obvious risks posed by the devices.

She said the fact that the Department of Human Services, the same state agency that’s responsible for protecting Iowa children from abuse, would “revictimize already vulnerable, typically mentally ill, children entrusted to their care is disturbing to the court at a level that is nearly indescribable.”

The judge cited “overwhelming evidence showing the school frequently punishes or tortures students through these (restraint devices) for behavior not meeting such conditions.”

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.

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