State pays $300,000 to ACLU lawyers over Ely "birdshot" lawsuit

The state agreed Wednesday to pay $299,500 in legal fees for ACLU lawyers in the Ely prison "birdshot" lawsuit.

The lawsuit, dating to 1994, included a variety of claims, including that guards in the prison were too quick to fire shotguns loaded with birdshot at inmates for relatively minor infractions.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit with 17 claims on behalf of the inmates.

Most of the issues were found to be without merit after extensive investigation, but the "birdshot" allegations and charges that the prison failed to provide adequate mental health care for some inmates were the subject of lengthy litigation.

Solicitor General Mark Ghan of the Attorney General's Office said Warden E.K. McDaniel and Prison Director Bob Bayer made a variety of policy changes that fixed those problems shortly after the suit was filed. That included a new shooting policy and improvements in mental health care.

"They had these changes in the works before the ACLU came along," he said.

But ACLU lawyers argued they should be paid fees to cover their expenses because it was their lawsuit which forced the changes.

U.S. District Judge David Hagen in Reno agreed, saying, "Defendants supply no evidence to support their claim that all of these significant changes would have occurred without plaintiffs' intervention.

"Plaintiffs, on the other hand, have provided the court statistics which show a dramatic drop in shooting incidents after the initiation of the lawsuit," his decision issued Oct. 14, 1999, says.

Shootings dropped from 50 to just five the year after the lawsuit was filed.

Hagen authorized $374,000 in attorneys fees, but the AG's office negotiated that to the $299,500 figure, which the Board of Examiners agreed to pay Wednesday.

In addition, the board approved a $30,000 payment to Margaret Woods in a sexual harassment claim against the Department of Prisons. The U.S. Equal Rights Employment Opportunity Commission found she was "subjected to sexual harassment, hostile work environment and retaliation" in her job in the prison system from 1992 to 1996.


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