Judge Grants Class Action Status to Methadone-Taper Jail Lawsuit

December 7, 2020

A federal judge has paved the way for a case against a methadone-taper policy at Cook County Jail, Illinois to proceed as a class action lawsuit.  

US District Judge Edmond Chang granted a motion for class certification in Rogers et al. v. Sheriff of Cook County and Cook County, Illinois on November 29, although he modified the class definition proposed by the plaintiffs—a group of impacted detainees.

The lawsuit arose from a policy that Cook County Jail followed until at least July 2017—under which the facility refused to permit incarcerated people with opioid use disorder (unless pregnant) to continue receiving stable maintenance doses of methadone. Instead, the jail mandated that detainees should taper off of their methadone, incrementally decreasing their dosage over time.  

The jail’s mandatory taper policy caused physical and psychological pain to detainees, and caused them to be less likely to seek out treatment after leaving custody, according to the plaintiffs’ complaint. However, the opinion granting class certification stated that experts have advocated for both methadone approaches in different circumstances. 

The lawsuit was originally filed in 2015 by Keith Rogers, who entered the Cook County Jail on January 21, 2014. Rogers was enrolled in a methadone program at that time, but did not receive his regular 200 mg dosage until January 26, 2014, according to court documents. His dosage was then reduced by 7 mg per day until he left the jail on February 16, 2014. 

Rogers experienced withdrawal symptoms before receiving his first doses of methadone in the jail. These symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, returned after he began receiving tapered doses of methadone.  

The plaintiffs identified at least 1,090 people who were affected by the jail’s methadone-taper policy, most of whom were detained there pre-trial.

Although Cook County Jail adopted a new written policy permitting ongoing methadone treatment in October 2019, the lawsuit “provides a powerful disincentive for the jail to revert back to its former barbaric policy,” Kenneth Flaxman, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, told Filter.

The judge’s definition of the class includes all detainees who entered the jail while the previous methadone-taper policy was in effect, who were taking an opioid use disorder medication at the time, and who took at least one dose of methadone while detained. 

The class also includes detainees who opted out of or are excluded from the settlement of Parish v. Sheriff of Cook County, another case litigated by Flaxman that was settled in March. It excludes people who were pregnant (as they were not subject to the jail’s mandatory tapering policy) and those who were on parole or held on another jurisdiction’s warrant. 

As the case moves forward, there will be two subclasses: one consisting of pre-trial detainees, and one of post-sentence prisoners. In order for their case to succeed in the next stage, those who were detained pretrial will need to demonstrate that the methadone-taper policy was “not rationally related to a legitimate governmental objective or that it [was] excessive in relation to that purpose,” according to court documents. 

Those who were incarcerated post-trial will need to show that the jail’s staff violated their Eighth Amendment rights by demonstrating “deliberate indifference.” Flaxman mentioned that that’s “almost an impossible standard to meet,” as it requires showing that a defendant had a subjective intent to do harm. 

The parties in the case will be required to file a joint status report that proposes the next steps of the litigation by January 7, 2021. 

The county has the right to ask the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals to review the class certification, but Flaxman said that he’s “hopeful that they won’t do that.” Flaxman also noted that since the jail has stopped its practice of a mandatory methadone-taper policy, this case is about whether money damages will be granted to those previously affected. 

Flaxman stated that this is the first opinion he’s aware of that grants class certification in a case centered on opioid use disorder medication, although he also said that components of Parish v. Sheriff of Cook County addressed methadone treatment for class members. 

The Cook County State Attorney’s Office told Filter that it was unable to comment on the case as the litigation is pending. 

The lawsuit will continue amid a growing national campaign for incarcerated people to have access to lifesaving opioid use disorder medications.


 

Photo of Cook County Department of Corrections via Cook County Sheriff’s Office

Lucia Geng

Lucia is Filter's editorial fellow.

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