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Landmark Civil Rights Lawsuit Turns Horrific Mental Health Hospital into Model Facility

Nearly ten years after filing a landmark civil rights lawsuit, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Mental Hygiene Legal Service and Kirkland & Ellis LLP have informed a court that the Kings County Hospital Center’s psychiatric facilities have lived up to a 2010 settlement that required wholesale systemic changes to address dangerous and sometimes deadly conditions. The court granted their motion today. As a result of the lawsuit and subsequent settlement, the facilities have gone from what the suit described as “a chamber of filth, decay, indifference and danger,” to a model psychiatric facility.

“Kings County’s psychiatric facilities, personnel and services are unrecognizable today compared to what they were when we filed our lawsuit,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “This was a place where New Yorkers, including children and the physically disabled, were routinely ignored and abused. Now it is a facility that the community it serves can be proud of.”

“The transformation at Kings County has been positive, powerful and meaningful,” said lead counsel and NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Beth Haroules. “The facility has embraced quality, individualized, patient-centered and recovery-oriented care.”

An extensive investigation conducted in 2006 and 2007 by the Mental Hygiene Legal Service (MHLS), in conjunction with the NYCLU and Kirkland & Ellis LLP, revealed that the Brooklyn public hospital’s psychiatric facilities were overcrowded and often dangerously unsanitary. Patients were routinely mistreated and abused. The defendants in the lawsuit, including the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, were made aware of the horrific conditions at Kings County and failed to remedy them.

“It is hard to overstate the difference between the psychiatric facility today and the truly horrific place we experienced in 2006,” said David S. Flugman, partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP. “There has been not only a total and complete transformation of the physical space, but also a sea change in the facility’s culture that has made it an exceptional institution committed to patient-centered treatment. Every aspect of a patient’s experience—from the moment she enters until the moment she is discharged—has improved dramatically. Kirkland is proud to have worked for these past ten years with our co-counsel at the NYCLU and MHLS, and congratulates all of the staff at Kings County for making the hospital a model of mental health treatment.”

In May of 2007, the NYCLU, MHLS, and Kirkland & Ellis LLP, filed a complaint on behalf of Sidney Hirschfeld, the director of MHLS, Second Judicial Department, in his representational capacity on behalf all psychiatric patients who have been treated or would in the future be treated at Kings County. The complaint described the hospital’s psychiatric emergency room and inpatient unit as “a shameful place,” lacking “the minimal requirements of basic cleanliness, space, privacy and personal hygiene” and sought an end to pervasive neglect and abusive treatment in the hospital’s psychiatric facilities. The suit alleged that the defendants’ actions violated the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and several provisions of the New York State Mental Hygiene Law, the New York Public Health Law, and the New York State Constitution.

The lawsuit triggered an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, which issued an investigatory report in 2009 calling conditions at the hospital’s psychiatric facility “highly dangerous” and requiring “immediate attention.” The report concluded that the hospital regularly fails “to properly assess, diagnose, supervise, monitor and treat its mental health patients.” The Department of Justice subsequently filed a separate lawsuit against Kings County.

Conditions at the hospital drew national attention in July 2008 after the NYCLU, MHLS, and Kirkland & Ellis LLP released security camera footage of Esmin Green, a 49-year-old Brooklyn woman, dying on the waiting room floor of the hospital’s psychiatric emergency room. The footage showed hospital staff ignoring Green as she writhed on the floor. Green had been in the waiting room for more than 24 hours.

In January, 2010, a federal judge approved a consent judgment and a settlement agreement, each of which mandated systemic changes and on-going monitoring. The systemic changes affected every aspect of care emanating from Kings County Hospital’s Behavioral Health Services and required changes to everything from mental health services and therapeutic interventions, nursing and medical care, to staff accountability and whistleblower protections.

For the last seven years, the NYCLU, MHLS and Kirkland & Ellis LLP have partnered with the Justice Department to closely monitor the hospital, assisted by a six-member expert compliance assessment team. On January 10, 2017 both the Justice Department and counsel for Sidney Hirschfeld certified to the court that the facility had achieved and maintained substantial compliance with the terms of both the Justice Department’s consent judgment and the settlement agreement and requested that the court enter orders closing both cases, which it did today. MHLS will continue to exercise its statutory obligations to monitor the facility.

“The comprehensive transformation of the psychiatric service at Kings County Hospital Center marks a turning point in the lives of people with mental disabilities and their families in Brooklyn.,” said Michael D. Neville, director of Mental Hygiene Legal Service, Second Department. “On behalf of the Mental Hygiene Legal Service, Second Judicial Department, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the U.S. Department of Justice, the NYCLU, our pro bono partners at Kirkland and Ellis, the NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation and, most of all, to our dedicated staff at MHLS, for their hard work and commitment to achieving this very positive outcome.”

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