Court Rejects Virginia Effort to Dismiss Suit Concerning Cruel And Inhumane Treatment of Autistic Individual

In an important development, a federal court in the Western District of Virginia largely rejected a motion by Virginia officials to dismiss a case against them brought by Reginald “Neli” Latson, a young African-American man with autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability, seeking redress for cruel and inhumane treatment that he suffered while in Virginia prisons in 2014-15. The case was filed last year by the law firm of Buckley Sandler LLP and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

The court specifically rejected Virginia's attempt to dismiss claims contending that the Commonwealth and prison officials had violated Mr. Latson’s rights by keeping him in in 23- to 24-hour solitary confinement as a result of the correctional facilities’ deliberate indifference and unwillingness to make appropriate accommodations for his disabilities. The court ruled specifically that the Commonwealth “has the power and duty to house its prisoners where they will be free from discrimination and afforded required accommodations,” and can be liable even when it “chooses to house its prisoners” in local and regional jails.

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Mr. Latson’s treatment while in Virginia prisons was cruel and shocking, and has resulted in life-long harm. While Mr. Latson was at a prison in Rappahannock, at one point prison officials shocked him with a Taser and strapped him for hours in a restraint chair. This harsh and inhumane treatment continued, as Mr. Latson was punished with extended solitary confinement and sensory deprivation while being treated cruelly and even mocked for his disability. As a result of the mistreatment, he will likely need costly residential treatment and other services for the foreseeable future. Based on these allegations, the court ruled on April 20 that the Virginia Department of Corrections and prison officials could be held liable under the Eighth Amendment for cruel and unusual punishment, the due process clause, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

Originally, Mr. Latson's claims against both the State and the Rappahannock defendants had been brought in the Eastern District of Virginia, but the court there decided that the claims against the Commonwealth should proceed in the Western District. Now that the WDVA court has rejected the motion to dismiss, the case will proceed to discovery and move towards trial, including claims that the Commonwealth defendants are partly responsible for the mistreatment Mr. Latson suffered while he was in state custody but housed at Rappahannock Regional Jail.

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