DEDHAM — A superior court judge on Monday delayed a class action lawsuit against Bridgewater State Hospital until mid-August, reasoning that state lawmakers should be given a chance to consider a long list of reforms expected to be submitted by Governor Deval Patrick later this week.
The decision, reached in Norfolk Superior Court at the request of Attorney General Martha Coakley, removed a potentially thorny political issue from her gubernatorial campaign. Pretrial testimony in the case will probably now not begin until after the primary election in September, under a schedule approved by Judge Paul D. Wilson.
Roderick MacLeish Jr., the lead attorney for patients in the class action suit, suggested in court that Coakley’s request for the delay was made for political reasons, saying, “it doesn’t pass the smell test.”
But Wilson said political considerations were not a factor in his decision, noting instead that “we have a governor who had made a proposal to the Legislature that would address many of the problems at Bridgewater State Hospital.”
A spokesman for Coakley in a statement said, “Because many of the issues raised in the case are addressed by the Governor’s proposal, our office and the Governor’s office asked to pause the case through mid-August until the Governor’s reforms could be acted upon by the Legislature.”
In addition, the schedule approved by Wilson appears to push pretrial testimony and the production of documents in the case into the general election campaign, when Coakley might face similar pressure to provide details about the role her office has played defending prison guards and Department of Correction officials.
Last month, Patrick unveiled an ambitious and potentially costly plan for reforms at Bridgewater, including doubling the number of clinicians, and funding a study on creating a new, high-security facility for mental health patients who have been charged with crimes and are undergoing psychiatric evaluation but are not serving criminal sentences.
Patrick’s proposal followed a series of stories in the Globe detailing the death of Joshua K. Messier, who died at Bridgewater in 2009 while in restraints, and the routine use of isolation and restraints at the prison — despite a state law that restricts the use of those tactics to life-threatening emergencies, and efforts in other states to reduce the use of the increasingly discredited practices.
Massachusetts is one of the few states that house mental health patients charged with crimes — including those referred for psychiatric evaluations to determine whether they are competent to stand trial — in facilities run by the prison system. Most states house such patients in hospitals run by a department of mental health. As part of the class action lawsuit, MacLeish asked for a court order requiring Department of Correction Commissioner Luis S. Spencer to personally review and sign all seclusion and restraint orders at Bridgewater, as state law requires, describing the law as a measure “designed to provide critical oversight of the seclusion and restraint law.”
But attorneys for Coakley’s office said Monday that the Department of Correction has voluntarily revised its policy on the seclusion and restraint forms and that Spencer has begun to personally review and sign them, and will continue the practice.
In a March interview with the Globe, Spencer said he delegated the review of seclusion and restraint forms, insisting this was a “best practice” that complied with the law.
MacLeish filed the class action lawsuit on behalf of Bridgewater patients in May, asserting that three patients never convicted of committing a crime were subject to prolonged periods of seclusion and restraints in violation of state law.
The lawsuit said that two patients diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia — Peter Minich and Felipe Zomosa — spent more time in isolation and restraints at Bridgewater in one year than all 626 patients in the state’s Department of Mental Health facilities combined.
The lawsuit also said that a third patient suffering from autism and schizophrenia was being held in seclusion for prolonged periods, which was causing his condition to deteriorate. Since then, Bridgewater has transferred Minich and Zomosa to the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital, a Department of Mental Health facility, although it is continuing to hold the patient diagnosed with autism and schizophrenia.
On Monday, Judge Wilson said that, although the class action suit is delayed, the court will continue to consider arguments over the use of seclusion and restraints in the case of the autistic patient and his medical care. During her campaign for the Democratic nomination, Coakley has frequently mentioned those who suffer from mental illnesses and their families — noting her own brother’s struggle with depression and his subsequent suicide.
But her office provided the legal defense for prison guards in a civil case filed by Messier’s family and is defending Bridgewater and the Department of Correction in the class action lawsuit.