The generosity of lawyers who give of their time and
resources for the public good
After nine years, the case of Disability Rights Montana, Inc. v. Brian M. Gootkin, et al., was settled in March of 2022. The Landmark settlement agreement ratified significant reforms for treatment of mentally ill incarcerated individuals at Montana State Prison.
Prior to the settlement, incarcerated people with mental illness were routinely subjected to extended periods of solitary confinement, which deprived them of clothing, working toilets, bedding, and proper food. Disability Rights Montana’s (DRM) complaint alleged cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Among other terms, the settlement agreement requires prisoners diagnosed with severe mental illness be provided mental health treatment by qualified mental health professionals, a minimum of 4 hours out-of-cell time per day, and cells that, at a minimum, have toilets, sinks, and platform beds.
The back story of this settlement is the generosity of the law firm of Foley & Lardner LLP.
In the legal profession, all lawyers have a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. In short, it is referred to as pro bono. It comes from a Latin phrase, pro bono publico, which means for the public good or welfare.
Foley & Lardner is a preeminent law firm with over 1,100 lawyers and 25 offices worldwide. Jeffery Simmons and Matt Lee, partners at Foley, provided the leadership over a team of its lawyers and support staff in representing DRM in bringing the lawsuit against the Montana State Prison.
Foley & Lardner provided their legal services pro bono and paid all the associated costs in the case. The firm logged 5,258 hours, equivalent to $2,438,021 in attorney fees and paid $202,832 in cost. The total investment in Montana is over two and half million dollars.
When Foley & Lardner agreed to represent DRM, they did it with no hesitation. During settlement negotiations, they focused on the best outcome for Montana residents with mental illness and did not make claim for attorney’s fees or costs.
It is troubling the State of Montana had to be sued to require them to provide humane treatment and follow the constitution.
Access to justice should be available to all. However, the inmates with mental illness at Montana State Prison would never have been able to afford the justice they deserved if it was not for the generous pro bono work of Foley & Lardner. Matt Lee, lead counsel and partner, said the investment was “certainly worth it for the result we got and for the experience of working with DRM”.
DRM is eternally grateful to Foley & Lardner’s team of 42 lawyers for their generosity and commitment to the public good and welfare of Montana residents with mental illness.
Support Disability Rights Montana and become eligible for great prizes by entering the 28th annual Montana Shares Raffle. Montana Shares is a partnership of nonprofit organizations working to build better communities across Montana. Contributions to member groups are made through Montana Shares each year during statewide workplace giving campaigns.
Through Montana Shares, Disability Rights Montana is able to raise thousands of additional dollars through workplace giving each year and raise public awareness within state agencies and the more than 80 other workplaces that take part in the annual giving campaign. All ticket sales of the raffle support Montana Shares in its efforts to help Disability Rights Montana and other nonprofits diversify fundraising and raise public awareness.
Subject: Landmark settlement agreement ratifies significant reforms for treatment of mentally ill incarcerated individuals at Montana State Prison
Montana State Prison will provide appropriate care, treatment, and housing to incarcerated individuals with severe mental illness.
Helena, MT – (March 16, 2022) Last Friday, the ACLU of Montana and Foley & Lardner LLP, on behalf of their client Disability Rights Montana (DRM), reached a settlement agreement with the Montana State Prison (MSP) and the Montana Department of Corrections (DOC), locking in significant reforms regarding how MSP houses and treats individuals with severe mental illness.
The settlement represents an important step forward in addressing the issues raised in DRM’s complaint filed in the United States District Court for the District of Montana in 2015, including inadequate mental health services and the inhumane practice of punishing incarcerated individuals for behavior caused by their mental illness. Prior to the settlement, incarcerated people with mental illness were routinely subjected to extended periods of solitary confinement and “behavior modification plans” that deprived them of clothing, working toilets, bedding, and proper food. These conditions worsened the individuals’ illness. Disability Rights Montana’s complaint alleged, cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In the intervening years, thanks to the lawsuit and actions by the Montana Legislature, officials at DOC and MSP, the treatment, housing and care of incarcerated individuals with severe mental illness gradually began to improve. Nevertheless, during the course of litigation, at least 12 people with severe mental illness at MSP died by suicide.
“This settlement represents huge gains for the humane treatment of inmates with severe mental illness” said Bernadette Franks-Ongoy, Executive Director of Disability Rights Montana. “Inmates with severe mental illness will now be provided appropriate care, treatment, and housing not to mention access to mental health experts, and most importantly restrict the use of solitary confinement.”
Disability Rights Montana is the federally mandated protection and advocacy system for Montana and has the authority to monitor and investigate MSP and other facilities where people with disabilities are served or reside. The settlement requires an independent monitor be appointed to ensure MSP and DOC comply with the settlement terms.
Among other terms, the settlement agreement requires every individual housed in the “Secure Adjustment Unit” (the housing unit where the majority of prisoners diagnosed with severe mental illness reside) is guaranteed a minimum of 4 hours out-of-cell time per day. It guarantees all mental health treatment will be provided by qualified mental health professionals. It mandates the elimination of behavior modification plans for incarcerated individuals with severe mental illness. And it replaces subhuman “safe cells” — which required persons with disabilities to use a hole in the floor as a toilet — with cells that must, at a minimum, have toilets, sinks, and platform beds. The agreement also makes clear these isolation cells are for limited emergency use only.
“While I am under no illusions that these reforms will be implemented overnight as a result of the settlement, I believe this represents a huge step forward,” said Caitlin Borgmann, ACLU of Montana Executive Director. “We still have a long way to go to reinstate the dignity of incarcerated individuals in Montana, but it can no longer be said that solitary confinement exists for mentally ill individuals at the Montana State Prison.”
Disability Rights Montana (DRM) is the federally mandated protection and advocacy system for Montana. DRM s and advocates for the human, legal, and civil rights of Montanans with disabilities while advancing dignity, equality, and self-determination. Learn more at disabilityrightsmt.org
The ACLU of Montana is a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of civil liberties and civil rights. The ACLU of Montana strives to advance civil liberties and civil rights through activities that include litigation, education and lobbying. Learn more at aclumontana.org
The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) found Montana State Hospital in Immediate Jeopardy. This finding is serious and disturbing. Immediate Jeopardy means the conditions in the hospital constitute a serious threat to the health and safety of patients. The public, patients, families, and courts have the right to know these CMS findings. What is the State of Montana doing to correct this problem? To minimize what is happening in the hospital is to minimize the importance of the treatment people expect the hospital to be providing.
We’ve been hearing from staff and patients about the poor conditions in the hospital. These people are asking time and time again for help.
It is incomprehensible why the State has not been forthright with the staff, patients, and the public regarding CMS’ finding. Being transparent is in the best interests of the patients and staff. We need to come together and find a solution, so patients get appropriate care and staff have the support they need to provide that care.
Disability Rights Montana’s Board of Directors is seeking new members. Please refer to the Overview of the Board of Directors for answers to frequently asked questions. If you are interested in applying to be a member of our Board, complete the application and values inquiry below: