May 7, 1999
The jail administrator and sheriff in the small Wisconsin town of Sparta ap-pear to set have set a record they probably would just as soon relinquish. They are facing the prospect of paying record monetary damages arising from a lawsuit over the manner in which they handled a prisoner diagnosed with schizophrenia.
In March a federal jury awarded $5.4 million in compensatory and punitive damages to Scott Lawson, who was confined to the Sparta jail after a 1993 arrest for carrying a concealed weapon-a fishing knife-and tools that could be used to commit a burglary.
The jury based its finding on the two defendants' decision to deny Lawson medical treatment for two-and-a-half months, 65 days of which were spent in solitary confinement.
This represents "the largest damage award to a person with a mental illness for lack of mental health treatment in jail," said Linda Priebe, senior attorney with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C. The size of the award is particularly startling, she added, "because our legal system generally values the lives of people with mental disabilities as worth less than others'-and as having even less value if the person has been accused of a crime."
Lawson was arrested after a patron at a Sparta bar at which Lawson stopped to try to cash a $50 savings bond called the police to report that he was acting in a bizarre manner.
Sparta police officer Wendell Howland responded to the call. Lawson cooperated with the officer's request for identification, providing his Social Security card. Lawson had no criminal record, a police computer showed. Soon after that, however, Howland arrested Lawson for carrying the concealed fishing knife, a misdemeanor.
During a search of Lawson's bags at the police station, police discovered wrenches and screwdrivers, which they determined could be burglary tools, and charged him with a felony for having them in his possession.
Dependent for living expenses on his Veterans Administration disability checks, Lawson was unable to post the $500 bond and had to remain in jail. He had two bottles of his antipsychotic medication at the time of his arrest.
After a friend learned of Lawson's arrest, he called jail administrator Lee Robarge to let him know that Lawson depended on this medication and might need an additional supply. Despite learning of Lawson's illness, however, Robarge did not provide any medical care and for nearly half of Lawson's jail stay kept him in solitary confinement.
After more than two months in jail as a pretrial detainee, Lawson was sent to a state mental hospital for an evaluation. After about three months, hospital officials sent him back to jail, but this time he arrived with a judge's order that the jail administrator was to ensure that he had access to medication.
He was eventually given a sentence of 10 years' conditional release, a sentence that was overturned on appeal 10 months after his arrest.
Two years later, in August 1996, he sued Robarge and supervising Sheriff Dale Trowbridge for reckless indifference to his psychiatric disorder and for unconstitutionally banishing him to solitary confinement.
A federal jury found in Lawson's favor, but awarded him just $2, half to be paid by each defendant. It believed that while his rights were violated, he was in part responsible for his own extended confinement because he chose not to pay his $500 bond with his V.A. disability check.
Outraged by the damage amount, he appealed it to a federal appeals court, which ruled that such a token damage award did not compensate him for the violations of his constitutional rights. That court found two errors in the lower court's proceeding. The appeals panel declared itself "uncomfortable with the conclusion these facts present: that a mentally ill man who [the jury found] was unconstitutionally in solitary confinement for at least 65 days, and [the jury found] was not provided medical care for his disease, and spent three months of his confinement in a state mental hospital because he was adjudged to be incompetent to stand trial acted unreasonably by not applying his V.A. check [which he uses to pay his rent] toward his bond and not asking his family members to bail him out."
The appeals court also expressed displeasure with the jury's reasoning that since Lawson was not taking his antipsychotic medication, he was in large measure at fault for what befell him. This assumption was partly responsible for the jury's award of just $2 to him. Neither the jail administrator nor the sheriff provided an explanation for their failure to ensure that Lawson had an adequate supply of his antipsychotic medication.
The appeals court also faulted the lower court judge for disallowing a challenge to the impression conveyed by the defendants that they would be personally responsible for paying damages when, in fact, those damages would be paid by the state or county for whom they worked.
Lawson's attorney, Michael J. Devanie, told Psychiatric News that the appeals court's anger at and huge adjustment of the lower court's finding indicates that the system will not tolerate "the warehousing of the mentally ill in jails and prisons and decisions to deny them treatment. It will especially not tolerate it when these decisions are made for financial reasons-to save money by not having to pay physicians to treat these people."
Bazelon Center attorney Priebe commented that this case "sends a strong message to both jail and mental health administrators that the public is concerned about the increasingly widespread incarceration of people with mental illness in jails and prisons and their inadequate treatment there."
Trowbridge and Robarge have indicated that they are likely to appeal the $5.4 million award.
Information about this case and other mental health law issues can be found on the Bazelon Center's Web site at www.bazelon.org/lawsonpg.html.
(Lawson v. Trowbridge and Robarge, 153 F. 3rd [7th Cir., 1998])--K.H.