As federal lawsuit progresses, lawyers ask to sue in state court over negligence in prison death of 19-year old
A federal judge has allowed a lawsuit involving Karon Nealy Jr., a 19-year-old who died from complications from lupus while in prison, to clear a crucial legal hurdle that permits the case to proceed to trial.
“Mr. Nealy did not have a cut or headache,” U.S. District Judge Victor A. Bolden wrote in the March 19 ruling. “He had an autoimmune disease that cost him his life.”
The ruling allows Hartford-based attorneys Kenneth Krayeske and DeVaughn Ward, who have brought numerous lawsuits against the state for what they allege is substandard medical care in prisons, to try Nealy’s case in front of a jury. Of the six cases they have handled, this is the first to proceed to a jury trial, Krayeske said. The others have been settled.
Bolden’s ruling, however, is narrow and only allows them to try Dr. Gerald Valletta, the doctor assigned to Manson Youth Institution at the time of Nealy’s death. Prison officials — most notably Scott Semple, the former commissioner of the Department of Correction — cannot be tried, Bolden ruled, since “There is no record evidence, however, that Commissioner Semple even knew who Mr. Nealy was, let alone that he permitted Dr. Valletta to be deliberately indifferent to Mr. Nealy’s treatment or allowed Mr. Nealy to be at a substantial risk of serious harm.”
In an effort to broaden their case, Krayeske plans to ask the Judiciary Committee Friday morning to allow him to file another lawsuit, this time in state court, to sue prison officials for negligence in Nealy’s death, a lower legal standard Krayeske said might be easier to clear. State law requires those wishing to sue the state to get permission from the legislature when the Claims Commissioner did not grant them authorization to file a lawsuit in Superior Court, which the commissioner did in June 2019 because there was a case pending in the federal courts “based on the same set of facts.” In that ruling, Claims Commissioner Christy Scott wrote that because there was a pending lawsuit, she was not allowed to even consider permitting Nealy’s lawyers to file a lawsuit in the Superior Court.
The committee’s permission would allow the attorneys to broaden their case to try the whole system, not just one doctor, Krayeske said.
“When you manage a system and when you’re entrusted in the management of 16,000 inmates and their health care, you have to make decisions that are reflective of their health,” he said. “You have to make decisions in their best interest. And if you know for 25 years before you’re commissioner that health care sucks and it’s understaffed and underfunded and people die, that makes you complicit, doesn’t it?”
Asked to respond to Krayeske’s comment, Semple said he can’t recall a time when a physician asked for his guidance, as the DOC commissioner, about the course of action they should take in medically treating an incarcerated person.
“It wasn’t like anyone ever asked me for permission, ‘Can we do this, or can we do that?’” Semple said.
In an email Thursday, a spokesperson for the Department of Correction wrote that the agency is unable to provide additional information on the case due to the “active litigation.”
A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office said in an email that, “The Claims Commissioner dismissed the state negligence claim as the plaintiff elected to pursue the matter in federal court. We defer comment to the decisions by the Claims Commissioner and federal court in this matter.”
A delayed diagnosis, a death at a young age
Nealy was 17 when he was sent to Manson Youth Institution, the state’s prison for children and young adults, on Nov. 18, 2013. He was assessed by medical personnel, who determined he didn’t have any immediate or chronic medical conditions. Medical records, however, indicate he was shot in the right leg in October 2013, hints of a traumatic life before his incarceration.
Nealy was released from prison nine days later. He was rearrested by Waterbury Police on Sept. 3, 2014 and charged with first-degree assault. He was transferred to Manson the next month. He submitted a litany of complaints to medical staff over the next nine months. He had an array of medical conditions, he said, from bug bites to joint pain to a sore throat.
Medical staff ordered lab work, gave him Motrin, and told him to do low-impact exercises and drink water, according to his lawsuit. According to other legal filings, Nealy’s hands were cold to the touch and his fingernails were gray or blue. He stayed in bed most days, complaining that all the bones in his body hurt.
Valletta reviewed Nealy’s lab results in June 2015 that showed a high “sed rate,” a marker of inflammation, and bumped up Nealy’s treatment plan, noting that he wanted to see Nealy at his next visit to Manson on June 11, 2015. But Valletta did not meet with Nealy because nurses at the prison failed to give the doctor all of Nealy’s chart that listed his medical issues, according to the lawsuit. Valletta never saw Nealy again.
On June 24, 2015, Nealy’s cell mate stopped a correction officer while he was walking through the housing unit and said Nealy needed medical attention. The CO went to the cell and asked if Nealy was OK. He didn’t respond.
Medical personnel took Nealy to the University of Connecticut Health Center on June 25, 2015. There, he was diagnosed with systemic lupus.
Nealy died on July 27, 2015 from lupus, organ failure and a lung infection.
Citing Nealy’s lab results, attorneys for the state argued Nealy did not appear to have a serious medical condition, so there wasn’t urgency or a medical requirement for Valletta to conduct more tests immediately. Without “20/20 hindsight,” the lawyers argued, “no one would have reasonably been able to diagnose lupus,” or another serious or rheumatological problem.
“Not one of the multiple medical providers in any of [Nealy’s ] 11 encounters noticed anything in his blood test results, chart, or complaints that suggested to them that he has a serious medical condition,” the state’s lawyers argued.
Bolden disagreed. Even if prison medical staff didn’t diagnose Nealy with lupus, they were aware of his serious medical symptoms, which included chronic, significant pain.
“Mr. Nealy’s steep ‘degeneration’ and ultimate passing further clarify his medical condition as serious,” Bolden wrote.
Critically, the judge pointed out Valletta deemed Nealy’s medical issues sufficiently serious that he escalated his planned treatment schedule, altering it from following up in six weeks to wanting to see him at his next visit at Manson.
“Dr. Valletta thus knew that Mr. Nealy’s potential illness could be harmful if not more closely examined sooner than six weeks,” Bolden wrote. “A reasonable jury then could determine that Dr. Valletta had ‘awareness of a substantial risk of the harm,’ because these results were serious, if he did not follow up with Mr. Nealy before the original six-week timeline.”
Bolden noted that a jury could conclude Valletta’s failure to follow up with Nealy constituted “deliberate indifference,” in part because it was his responsibility, regardless of whether prison nursing staff provided him with Nealy’s chart when he was at Manson shortly before Nealy’s death, to follow up with a patient he deemed to have a serious enough medical issue that his schedule of care should be expedited.
“The issue is not what someone else should have done, but what Dr. Valletta should have done,” Bolden ruled.
An attempt to hold the state accountable
In order to sue for negligence in state court, Krayeske and Ward must get permission from the legislature. Otherwise, the state can’t be held liable for damage or injury it causes, meaning it can’t be sued.
Claims against the state are presented to the Claims Commissioner, from whom they can seek damages or permission to sue in state court. Appeals from the commissioner’s decision are made to the legislature. Lawmakers can accept, reject or alter the recommendation from the Claims Commissioner.
Krayeske said the claims commission ruled in 2019 that Nealy’s attorneys not be allowed to sue because they had a case pending in the federal courts.
“We need the entire state to be held accountable,” said Krayeske.
Despite widespread reports and legislative hearings on the substandard quality of medical care in state correctional facilities, Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven and co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, struggled to recall a single case in which the committee has allowed incarcerated people or their families to sue the state since he first joined the committee in 2009.
Winfield said it helps if those seeking to sue have a lawyer who can present their case to the committee.
“Most of them, nobody shows up,” Winfield said. “Normally we don’t have enough information to just simply overturn the claims commissioner.”
In weighing the claim commissioner’s decision, the Judiciary Committee is not awarding damages or issuing a ruling on the case, Winfield said. They’re merely determining whether a case has enough merit to go forward.
“We aren’t the final arbiter of this; we’re not saying they won or lost,” Winfield said. “We’re saying you can proceed forward in a court of law.”
Krayeske and Ward have been successful in federal court. In one case, they reached a multimillion-dollar settlement in a class action lawsuit that led to the Department of Correction treating hundreds of incarcerated people for Hepatitis C. In another, they received a $250,000 settlement in a case involving a woman giving birth in her prison cell.
But this is the first time the attorneys have asked the legislature to sue in state court, Krayeske said. Nealy’s case is so egregious, the attorneys contend, they think a lawsuit in the state courts stands a chance.
“The federal judge already found that the doctor could be held liable on a standard of law far more difficult than negligence,” Krayeske said.
A lawsuit challenging the broader conditions of Nealy’s death — the systemic failures of the medical care provided to the incarcerated — could serve as a proxy to vindicate those who haven’t filed lawsuits but are still subjected to substandard care in prison, Krayeske said, allowing for the state to reckon with the past.
“For our ability as a society to evolve past the age of mass incarceration, we have to understand that what we did was terrible,” Krayeske said.
Even if the Judiciary Committee doesn’t give Krayeske and Ward permission to sue for negligence, Nealy’s federal case will still go forward.
“The state is on the hook one way or the other,” said Krayeske.
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