There is a well-defined intersection between Section 1983 litigation over state deprivation of a plaintiff’s civil rights and medical malpractice claims, lawyers say.
The intersection is where incarcerated inmates, usually in jails, are denied medical care, which appears to be a problem in some counties, including some with private medical care contracted for jails, said attorneys Robert Bennett and Philip Sieff recently.
When attorneys Bennett, Katie Bennett, Andy Noel and Marc Betinsky recently joined Robins Kaplan, where Sieff is a partner, it was a strategic lateral move because the four lawyers’ civil rights practice fit Robins’ mission, Sieff said.
Bennett and the other lawyers were with Gaskins Bennett Birrell, a firm of 13 lawyers that is now in the process of dissolving, with lawyers moving in different directions. Steve Gaskins, who received his J.D. in 1973, is still representing selective clients. Birrell has set up shop with his son, Ian, at Birrell Law Firm. Dan Brees is employed in another law firm.
Bennett calls the move not a split but a lateral hire. “Steve [Gaskins] and I are anything but negative toward each other,” he said.
Gaskins agreed, saying, “I’m retiring. It’s a lot of work to retire.” He said he told Bennett and Birrell that he intended to retire in 2020, which led to the process of dissolving the firm. He’s winding that up now and is not taking new clients, he said.
Robins took over the other firm’s office space and many of the people already knew each other well. Sieff and Bennett worked together on the litigation following the collapse of the 35W bridge in 2007 and since that time thought it would be fun to practice together.
The move does not reflect a growing trend in the legal profession to make firms bigger and bigger, Sieff said. “It was an opportunity for our firm to have four really talented lawyers in a practice area that makes sense. It is not, ‘We must get bigger or else.’”
But the move does make Robins, with more than 250 attorneys in eight major cities, a large firm for a section 1983 practice. “It’s traditionally been solos or small firms doing 1983 cases. Those days have changed and the cases are becoming something that a big firm can embrace and support. [Robins] is the first such combination and that’s a big deal,” Bennett said.
Another way in which the groups’ cultures mesh is in selectivity taking cases. Sieff said that Robins accepts about 2% of medical malpractice cases presented to it and Bennett takes about 2% of police shooting cases, for which he is well-known.
“With selectivity comes the ability to put forward the good cases that effect change,” said Sieff. “Selectivity and prosecuting cases in the right way raises credibility and accountability for the wrongdoer.”
With an already high share of 1983 cases in the area, the lawyers want to increase it. One avenue is the “bad, horrific” medical care afforded to jail inmates, Sieff said. “That’s an area we are going to look extremely hard at across the upper Midwest if not the country.”
The standard promulgated under Section 1983 is that deliberate indifference to a prisoner’s illness, injury or suicide violates the Eighth Amendment. The privatization of medical care has limited access by prisoners, Bennett said. “The person that’s usually eliminated in private medical care at the jails is the doctor. Minnesota has between 4,000 and 5,000 jail inmates and one doctor covering the geographic area. Nothing could be more deliberately indifferent, in my judgment,” he said.
“The bottom line is we’re going to be looking hard at how people are treated. It is our hope to bring about some changes in how they are caring for these incarcerated people,” Sieff said.
The firm will also continue with medical malpractice and police shooting cases, as well as other civil rights cases and opioid cases, both on and off Indian reservations. All in all, the plan is that the combined resources and trial expertise of the firms will be daunting to the defense, the lawyers agree.