CLEVELAND, Ohio — Cuyahoga County prosecutors withheld dozens of videos of potential abuse at the jail for “improper purposes” in a lawsuit filed by an inmate with a mental illness, a federal judge ruled on Tuesday.
The inmate accused corrections officers of twice pepper-spraying him in the face for no reason in October 2019.
U.S. District Judge J. Philip Calabrese ordered Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley’s office to pay attorneys for Deonte James for the time they spent working to get the videos, which prosecutors legally had to provide as part of the case.
The “Court finds at nearly every turn the county put up roadblocks, dragged its feet, hid the ball and otherwise withheld discovery for improper purposes,” Calabrese wrote. “In short, the county’s discovery conduct delayed this litigation and increased the parties’ costs without substantial justification.”
A judge forcing the prosecutor’s office to pay for attorneys’ fees in a civil case is rare and reserved for when one side in a case flouts court rules regarding the sharing of information, called discovery.
Calabrese wrote in his order that he’ll determine at a later date the amount the prosecutor’s office must pay. Prosecutors tried to argue that making the office pay attorneys’ fees is unfair because the money would come from taxpayer money.
“Stewardship for public dollars falls to the county, its officials and its lawyers, and the county does not enjoy a special exception or immunity” under the law, Calabrese wrote.”
Alexandria Bauer, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office, declined to comment.
“Video evidence of unjust brutality by corrections officers that the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office tried and failed to hide is going to support a verdict in Mr. James’ favor, and he looks forward to trial,” said Ashlie Case Sletvold, an attorney for James. “You can’t resort to violence as the first step in dealing with people with mental illness.”
Calabrese rejected every argument the county made, including that its attorneys acted properly and that it took an immense amount of time and resources to find and produce the videos. Calabrese wrote that the county “slow walked” giving up the videos and delayed the case.
He ordered that the case go to mediation on June 28.
The prosecutor’s office “has no one to blame for its predicament but itself,” Calabrese wrote.
Calabrese’s ruling is the latest in a legal battle that boiled over in recent months over the videos. Sletvold argued that attorneys found 450 videos of potential abuse of inmates with mental illness during a two-year period. The two sides agreed that the county would produce 60 videos, with more to come later.
In arguments to Calabrese, James’ attorneys said they tried more than 25 times over a 16-month span to get the videos. Calabrese ruled on Dec. 28 that the county must give up the videos and warned that the county could be on the hook to pay attorneys fees for waiting so long.
The day before a hearing set to argue about the fees, Cuyahoga County’s top civil attorney, Dave Lambert, filed a motion seeking Calabrese to recuse himself because the judge, as a private attorney, once worked on a lawsuit against the county over horrid conditions at the jail.
Sletvold then asked Calabrese to formally discipline Lambert for delaying the proceedings.
Calabrese has not yet decided on whether he’ll issue discipline — called sanctions — against Lambert. To do so he must find Lambert asked for the judge to recuse himself out of a hidden agenda or to delay the proceedings.
James’ attorneys filed the lawsuit in October 2021.
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