Judge orders settlement talks in Gwinnett jail excessive force suit

A photo of the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office’s rapid response team. Credit: Channel 2 Action News

A photo of the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office’s rapid response team. Credit: Channel 2 Action News

A federal judge wants a lawsuit alleging widespread excessive force inside the Gwinnett County jail to be resolved — and soon.

In an order filed last week, U.S. Magistrate Judge Alan J. Baverman set a January date for a mediation conference, in hopes of resolving the lawsuit which was filed last year on behalf of dozens of current and former Gwinnett County inmates, many of whom were held in "restraint chairs" at the jail for hours at a time.

But the judge encouraged attorneys representing the inmates and Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway to try and reach a settlement beforehand.

“Before arriving at the conference,” Baverman wrote, “the parties are to negotiate and make a good faith effort to settle the case without the involvement of the Court.”

The likelihood of such negotiations succeeding is unclear. So is what a potential settlement could look like.

A spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office declined to comment. Craig T. Jones, one of the attorneys representing the inmates, declined comment as well.

Jones and colleague John Cicala filed the lawsuit last December on behalf of 75 Gwinnett inmates, naming as defendants Conway and Lt. Col. Carl Sims, the former commander of the jail's SWAT-like "rapid response team." The suit asks for unspecified damages.

The complaint alleges many different abuses but focuses largely on the rapid response team’s use of restraint chairs to control inmates deemed to be dangerous or unruly. It claims that the chairs — which bind inmates’ arms, legs and head — are used as punishment and violate constitutional rights.

The lawsuit argues that many of the inmates placed in restraint chairs, including pre-trial detainees, had mental health issues. Others may have been “loud” or “intoxicated” but didn’t pose any real threat, it argues.

“Defendants are supervisors who have created and now perpetuate a policy of unlawfully permitting the Rapid Response Team to use unreasonable and excessive force with impunity,” the lawsuit says. “Defendants have not only condoned and failed to control unconstitutional activity by the Rapid Response Team, they have directed and encouraged it.”

The sheriff’s office has defended the rapid response team and its use of restraint chairs, saying they help keep the jail safe and have been implemented “well within legal bounds.”

The lawsuit that's now under court-mandated settlement negotiations was brought about four months after Deputy Aaron Masters, a member of the rapid response team, was caught on surveillance video punching a mentally ill inmate. Masters was fired and charged with battery.

The inmate in that case, Shelby Clark, is a lead plaintiff in the suit.

A previous version of this story included out-of-date information about the status of a 2013 suit brought by Jones and Cicala. It has been removed.