Judge certifies class in Hepatitis C case against DOC

A district court judge has certified a class action against the Indiana Department of Correction and various medical providers, alleging the defendants fail to provide adequate treatment for the class members’ Hepatitis C diagnoses.

Pendleton Correctional Facility inmates Michael Ray Stafford, Charles Smith and Douglas Smith have been diagnosed with chronic Hepatitis C, a viral condition that can cause liver damage, failure or cancer or death in extreme cases. The inmates alleged they tested positive while in DOC custody but have been denied their requested treatment.

The plaintiffs specifically sought a direct-acting antiviral treatment approved by the FDA in 2013 and recommended by a panel of experts known as the HCV Guidance Panel. The DOC and medical defendants have refused to provide the treatment due to short-term costs, the inmates allege, thus violating their rights under the Eighth Amendment, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

The inmates moved individually for monetary damages and on behalf of the class for injunctive and declaratory relief, proposing a class definition including, “All persons who are now, or will in the future be, in the custody of IDOC, diagnosed with chronic HCV, and wish to receive standard of care treatment for their illnesses but are being denied it.” The defendants, however, argued that definition would not be ascertainable because the court would have to discern which individuals “wish” to receive standard-of-care treatment and, further, have been denied it.

In response, the inmates modified their class definition to “All current and future prisoners in IDOC custody who have been diagnosed, or will be diagnosed, with chronic HCV,” a definition Indiana Southern District Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson accepted Wednesday. The DOC and medical care providers sought to defeat the certification by alleging the definition would require individual assessments of each prisoner, but Magnus-Stinson rejected that argument.

First addressing the issue of numerosity, the defendants challenged the alleged class size – at least 3,100 members – based on the standard-of-care portion of the original definition. But because the court adopted the modified definition that removed the standard-of-care considerations, Magnus-Stinson said those arguments were no longer relevant.

The issue of individual assessments featured prominently in the defendants’ arguments against the commonality and typicality of the class, with the DOC and care providers asserting the proposed definition “identifies and recognizes the individualized nature and the variances in the patients.” The chief judge, however, said that argument mischaracterizes the relevant inquiry in class certification —  whether there are common questions of law or fact among the class members.

Here, there are common questions of both law — related to constitutional and statutory violations — and fact — related to the denial of HCV treatment — among the class members, Magnus-Stinson said. Further, typicality is present because the named plaintiffs’ claims challenging the DOC’s HCV treatment policies are typical of the claims of the class, she said.

Finally, Magnus-Stinson rejected the defendants’ argument that because the named plaintiffs are individually seeking monetary damages, they cannot adequately represent the interests of the class.

“The State Defendants never identify what conflict may arise as a result of these additional claims, or how any conflict might impact the named Plaintiffs’ interest in fairly and adequately pursing the injunctive relief claims,” she wrote. “Moreover, they cite no authority to support the assertion that the existence of non-class claims creates a conflict or impacts the named Plaintiffs’ adequacy.”

The case is Michael Ray Stafford, et al. v. Robert E. Carter, Jr., et al., :17-cv-00289.

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