The stunning case of Michael Schuler v. Hennepin County paints a sobering picture of what can happen when a severely mentally ill man is jailed instead of being cared for in a psychiatric hospital.
When Schuler, 25, was placed in Hennepin County jail in March 2012 for missing a court appearance for a misdemeanor offense, he was already well known by Hennepin County Medical Center personnel and Court Services personnel as a man whose life had been ravaged by schizophrenia, chemical dependency and homelessness.
Shortly after he arrived in jail, Schuler’s mental state worsened, and on May 2, 2012, Schuler stabbed himself in both eyes with a pencil, making him completely blind in his right eye. He retained sight in his left eye.
Schuler sued, and ultimately settled, with Hennepin County in late 2013 for $1 million. It is considered to be the largest settlement Hennepin County has paid to a jail inmate.
Schuler’s attorneys, Bill Lubov and Bob Bennett each brought unique talents to the Schuler case. Lubov has practiced extensively in mental health law for 30 years, and Bennett has expertise in constitutional law and section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act. The lawyers met while classmates at the University of Minnesota Law School in the 1970s.
Together, Lubov and Bennett strategically elevated Schuler’s case from a medical malpractice lawsuit in state court to a constitutional claim in federal court by arguing that Schuler’s Eighth and Fourteenth amendment rights had been violated.
Moving Schuler’s case to federal court also offered more opportunities for relief, including recovering attorney’s fees.
Lubov and Bennett say they felt confident that Schuler’s treatment by jail staff and medical personnel passed the constitutional test of obvious, “deliberate indifference.”
For several weeks before Schuler stabbed himself in the eyes, he was acting in bizarre fashion, including yelling incoherently, throwing items around his cell, and standing naked in his own urine and feces.
Lubov and Bennett argued that jail medical staff and officers ignored Schuler even though by Eighth Amendment and common sense standards, Schuler was in obvious need of care.
“Hennepin County Medical Center staff, including nurses, psychologists and psychiatrists, were available, but Michael [Schuler] was not adequately evaluated, medicated or supervised,” said Lubov. “He should not have been left alone, and his dramatic decompensation should have made it readily apparent to anyone that Michael should not have been in a jail setting.”
Both Lubov and Bennett say they have other clients who will soon be filing claims similar to Schuler’s.
“What we have is a systemic problem of turning jails into short-term warehouses for the severe and persistently mentally ill,” said Bennett. “There are going to be more cases if the problem isn’t addressed simply because courts are going to see more individual violations of civil rights. The message is: if you don’t spend the money taking care of the people, you’ll spend the money compensating the people.”