Judge chastises former AG candidate in prison death suit

January 31, 2022 GMT

DOVER, Del. (AP) — A former Democratic candidate for attorney general has been chastised by a federal judge for falling short of “serious lawyering” in a lawsuit involving the death of a Delaware prison inmate.

Chris Johnson, who is also a former deputy legal counsel to Democratic Gov. John Carney, filed the lawsuit in 2020 on behalf of the mother of Tiffany Reeves, who died at Sussex Correctional Institution in October 2018.

The lawsuit alleges that officials with the Department of Correction and the DOC’s medical contractor at the time, Connections Community Support Programs, failed to provide proper medical care for Reeves after she was arrested on two outstanding warrants.

Judge Stephanos Bibas on Friday dismissed three current and former DOC officials as defendants because Johnson had failed to properly serve them with notification of the lawsuit within the required 120-day time period. Johnson also failed to serve notice to the Delaware attorney general’s office, as he was required to do because the DOC defendants were “officers of the state.”

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“The mother’s lawyer shirked both requirements,” the judge wrote.

“This tragic suit makes serious allegations about an inmate’s mistreatment in jail. It deserves equally serious lawyering,” Bibas added. “But the mother’s lawyer fell short.”

In dismissing the DOC defendants, Bibas also ordered Johnson to give Reeves’ mother a copy of his ruling and have her sign a letter confirming receipt.

Johnson, who ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 2018 but was elected to Wilmington City Council in 2020, declined to directly address the language Bibas used, but he noted that the DOC defendants were dismissed “without prejudice.” That means they could be added back into the lawsuit if an amended complaint can detail specific acts or omissions by them that allegedly led to Reeves’ death and if the defendants are properly served.

Bibas advised that before Johnson files an amended complaint, he should consult the federal rules of civil procedure.

“Even though we may disagree with the judge’s decision, we are thankful it is without prejudice, ...” Johnson said. “But ultimately, the client will get justice against Connections, and that’s the bottom line.”

Reeves was pronounced dead three days after being taken into custody, when a cellmate reported that she was unresponsive. The lawsuit alleges that officials denied proper medical care for Reeves after she told a prison nurse about her long history of heroin abuse and complained about stomach pains.

A medical examiner determined that Reeves had died from an irregular heartbeat, possibly caused by drug withdrawal.

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A former Connections nurse, Erin Clark-Penland, was sentenced in October to six months of probation after being convicted on misdemeanor charges of falsifying business records and providing a false statement to law enforcement. State prosecutors said Clark-Penland told investigators that she had seen Reeves the night before she was pronounced dead and made corresponding entries in official medical logs. Video surveillance and witness testimony showed that both claims were lies, officials said.

Meanwhile, Connections sought bankruptcy protection last April, just days after being targeted by federal officials in two lawsuits. One lawsuit alleged that the company knowingly submitted false claims for payment to Medicare and Medicaid. The other alleged that the company and top corporate officers negligently failed to keep required documentation of its distribution and dispensing of controlled substances, particularly those for treating opioid addiction.

Connections agreed in August to the entry of consent judgments totaling more than $15.3 million to resolve the two government lawsuits alleging health care fraud and violations of the Controlled Substances Act.

A Delaware bankruptcy judge is scheduled to hear arguments next week on a request by attorneys for Reeves’ mother to lift the automatic stay that halts litigation against a company in bankruptcy, so that she can proceed with her lawsuit against Connections.