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Federal judge admonishes attorney after jailhouse 'ruckus'

July 19, 2018

Plaintiffs’ counsel who took selfies with inmates and acknowledged causing a “bit of a ruckus” during a jail inspection got handed a protective order as well as a sharp rebuke from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.

At issue is a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of current and future inmates of the Henry County Jail alleging overcrowding at the facility in violation of the Constitution. The attorneys for the plaintiffs and the defendants had reached an agreement prior to a tour of the jail that the plaintiffs’ counsel would not speak. Instead, the jail commander would introduce him to the inmates and explain he was touring the facility in connection to a class action complaint.

However, on the day of the inspection in April 2018, the plaintiffs’ counsel disagreed with the conditions, contending he wanted to introduce himself and speak directly to the inmates. The parties dropped a dime to the Magistrate Judge Matthew Brookman from the jail to settle the dispute, but the court would not rule without a motion being filed. After that, the plaintiffs’ counsel left abruptly.

When the plaintiffs’ counsel later asked to reschedule the tour, the defendants’ attorney requested that the court enter a protective order. Brookman granted the defendants’ motion, which prohibited any introduction of the plaintiffs’ attorney or explanation of the tour and banned the lawyer from speaking directly to the inmates. The plaintiffs’ attorney had previously introduced himself to inmates directly and even “put his around around (inmates) and used his cell phone to take a selfie-style photo.”

The motion for the protective order was filed by Pamela Schneeman of Stephenson Morow & Semler. In the document, she identifies the plaintiffs’ counsel who was at the jail in April 2018 as Michael Sutherlin of Michael K. Sutherlin & Associates, Inc.

Plaintiffs’ counsel then filed a “Motion Appealing the Order of the Magistrate Judge and Posing Restrictions on a Visit to the Henry County Jail.” Southern Indiana District Court Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson pointed out the proper procedure for appealing a magistrate judge’s decision on a non-dispositive matter is to file an objection under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72( a). Then the judge overruled the plaintiffs’ objection in Christopher Baker v. Richard McCorkle, et al., 1:16-cv-03026.

The court noted the plaintiffs’ counsel had agreed to not communicate with the inmates during the tour. Also, the plaintiffs’ objection does not demonstrate how the magistrate judge’s decision was “clearly erroneous or contrary to law.” Instead, Magnus-Stinson said, the plaintiffs’ counsel only expressed disagreement with the decision and presented information that was not offered in response to the motion for the protective order.

Finally, Magnus-Stinson addressed the plaintiffs’ attorney conduct, saying the court “is disturbed by Plaintiffs’ counsel’s attacks on Defendants’ counsel.” The court noted the attorney called opposing counsel “ignorant” and claimed the defendants’ counsel “began to invent reasons why” he could not introduce himself to the inmates.

Mangus-Stinson then referenced the Seventh Circuit Standards for Professional Conduct, which provides that attorneys will be civil and courteous to all other counsel and not make unfounded accusations against opposing counsel.   

“The Court cautions Plaintiffs’ counsel that his statements approach – if not cross – the lines drawn by these standards, and he should take care not to approach those lines again,” Magnus-Stinson concluded.

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