MONTGOMERY COUNTY — Lawyers representing 2,300 former inmates of the County Jail have agreed to settle a class action lawsuit against the county for $1 million.
The agreement was filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York by attorney E. Robert Keach of Amsterdam, who represents the original “class representatives” for the lawsuit, former jail inmates Perry Hill and James Rogers. The lawsuit alleged that inmates were deprived of adequate meals.
The agreement must now be approved by U.S. District Court Judge Brenda K. Sannes.
Keach said he will file a motion on Friday asking Sannes to approve the settlement. He said he anticipates Sannes will rule on the agreement soon.
“The parties reached a settlement that everyone involved agrees is fair,” he said. “My colleagues and I are proud of the job that we did representing the class in this case, and we are happy we received a resolution to the benefit of our class members. We’re also happy that both Sheriff Jeff Smith and County Attorney [Meghan] Manion have instituted a number of positive changes at the jail following [former Sheriff] Michael Amato’s departure from county government.”
The lawsuit alleged that inmates were not provided adequate nutrition in violation of the 8th and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution during their time in custody. The jail was overseen by Amato at that time.
Hill was the first one to file the lawsuit in 2014, alleging he was only fed 1,700 calories per day, and sometimes less, when he was held at the jail from October 2013 to March 2014 on a parole violation.
The suit argued adult males need 2,400 to 3,000 calories per day, depending on physical exertion.
In his testimony for the case, Amato claimed he was aware the inmates complained they wanted more food and were hungry, but believed the complaints were made because they wanted the commissary back, which had been taken away.
One inmate, Andre Cruz, said in his testimony inmates were relegated to eating oral hygiene products while at the jail.
“The last meal was at maybe quarter to 5 p.m. We don’t eat again until the next day around 7 p.m.” he said in his testimony. “So, we ate toothpaste, we ordered Halls from commissary, before they took that away, just to kind of not starve.”
Montgomery County Executive Matt Ossenfort offered a statement about the settlement Thursday:
“This was the first lawsuit that came across my desk in 2014 when I first began my term as county executive. I am pleased that after years of working to reach an agreement that is mutual to all parties, we have done that,” Ossenfort said. “I’m even more pleased that we can put this issue behind us.”
As part of the settlement, Montgomery County continues to deny any wrongdoing in the case.
“I would say, we are always striving to improve and become better, and I think there has been a lot of positives and improvements at the public safety facility in Montgomery County,” Ossenfort said.
The settlement splits $622,500 among inmates who qualify for compensation; and about 30 percent, $300,000, goes to attorney fees. It also sets aside $50,000 for a third-party administrator to provide notice to all of the potential members of the lawsuit.
To be eligible for any part of the settlement a former jail inmate needs to have been incarcerated for no less than 14 consecutive days between July 25, 2011 to Dec. 31, 2018.
Hill and Rodgers each receive an “incentive award” of $10,000 each for their willingness to
step forward and file the suit, in addition to their share of the overall settlement.
An inmate’s share of the settlement will be determined by two factors: how many eligible inmates put in claims for the settlement and how many days those inmates spent in the jail. More days equals a greater share up to a cap of 365 days.
Witnesses in the lawsuit also were awarded $500 in addition to their share of the settlement.
Every eligible inmate that submits a claim to settlement will receive at least $50 in addition to their share of the overall settlement.
After notices are distributed to potential members of the lawsuit, inmates have 60 days to opt out of the settlement, preserving their right to file their own lawsuit. If they don’t opt out, they waive that right.