The settlement of a lawsuit over sex assaults of female inmates came after a federal court judge announced plans to probe allegations of misconduct by state lawyers.

A federal court judge announced in May she would probe allegations of misconduct by state lawyers in a lawsuit over sex assaults of inmates by staff at the Hawaii women’s prison. Weeks later, the state Attorney General’s Office announced it had agreed to pay $2 million to settle the case.

The timing of the sizable settlement was extraordinary because the state had already essentially won the case at trial when a federal court jury refused to award any damages to the inmates last year.

Court records show lawyers with the Attorney General’s Office had already been sanctioned once by the federal court for failing to produce records in the case, and the timing of the settlement suggests it may have been intended at least in part to preempt the judge’s inquiry into possible additional misconduct.

Honolulu lawyer Eric Seitz said he watched the case unfold over the years and sat in on portions of the trial, and he believes there was no basis for any kind of appeal after the jury awarded nothing to the inmates and former inmates last year.

“I think what happened was that clearly there was evidence that somebody had cheated along the line, and the outcome would not have been the same if that information had been turned over (to the women’s lawyers) as it should have been,” Seitz said.

Women's Community Correctional Center.
A lawsuit over sexual assaults at the Women’s Community Correctional Center was settled earlier this year after a federal court judge announced she would investigate allegations of misconduct by lawyers for the state. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

U.S. District Court Judge Jill Otake announced on April 14 she planned to call lawyers who defended the state in the case as witnesses in an evidentiary hearing to put them under oath and question them about how and why some key documents were not produced during the trial, according to court records.

An Abrupt Settlement

However, newly appointed Attorney General Anne Lopez announced on May 12 that the state had agreed to pay the $2 million to resolve the claims by the current and former prisoners. She said the settlement would finally “put this case to rest.”

That abrupt settlement of the long-running lawsuit was a startling turnabout because the state had battled the six women’s claims for damages ever since the lawsuit over the sex assaults was first filed in 2017.

The lawsuit went to trial in federal court twice, initially ending in a mistrial in 2020. The second trial ended last year when a federal court jury awarded zero damages to the women inmates, a clear victory for the lawyers who were defending the state from liability.

“This settlement recognizes that these women were victims while in the State’s custody
and that they should receive a measure of justice for the harm the (adult corrections officers) caused them,” Lopez said in a written announcement of the agreement.

Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez assumed her new role in December. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Lopez declined to be interviewed but said in a written statement that “we strongly deny any claims of misconduct by the Department of the Attorney General, and we are grateful to our deputies who litigated this case professionally and with integrity.”

“This was a complex case that went on for many years. Irrespective of the legal complexity, however, it is clear that the six plaintiffs were victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment by former Adult Correction Officers at the Women’s Community Correctional Center (WCCC),” Lopez said in her statement.

Lawyers Terrance Revere, Paul Smith and Richard Wilson, who represented the current and former inmates, filed a flurry of requests with the court in December after the second trial seeking either a new trial or a default judgment by Otake in favor of the women.

Seeking Sanctions

Their motion seeking a default judgment and sanctions against the state attorneys in the case detailed a series of instances in which lawyers for the state allegedly withheld evidence.

For example, Otake had sanctioned the state in 2020 for failing to produce a 2013 report by consultant Buford Goff & Associates that detailed problems with the video cameras at the women’s prison until five days into the first trial. Working cameras are a safeguard to prevent sex assaults and other misconduct.

The court also noted in the sanctions order that the state had failed to produce emails about the sex assaults that were the subject of testimony during the first trial.

Otake then questioned Deputy Attorney General Skyler Cruz during the April 14 hearing about minutes of weekly staff meetings at WCCC. At those meetings, Warden Eric Tanaka discussed purchasing and installing wireless cameras in storerooms at the prison to prevent thefts, according to court records.

Cruz acknowledged he received those minutes from corrections officials on the last day before the end of the second trial but said he did not provide them to the women’s lawyers until the trial was over and the jury had refused to award any damages.

“This settlement recognizes that these women were victims while in the State’s custody.”

Attorney General Anne Lopez

Wilson, lawyer for the current and former inmates, pointed out that Otake had ordered the state to produce all records related to funding and budget for cameras. Yet the lawyers for the state did not provide the meeting minutes to the lawyers for the inmates until two weeks after the second trial.

Wilson argued that issue was critical because the warden had claimed during trial that he did not have the authority to install cameras that might have prevented the sexual assaults. The meeting minutes suggested that was not true, according to court filings.

Wilson argued the minutes of the WCCC staff meetings would have “gutted” the state’s argument, according to court records.

Meeting Minutes And Other Evidence

Cruz described extensive efforts to gather all of the required evidence and documents to provide to the lawyers for the current and former inmates but said he only learned of the minutes of the meetings of section heads during testimony on the sixth day of the second trial.

Otake then told Cruz she had concluded the minutes should have been produced under her previous order imposing sanctions in the case, according to the hearing’s transcript. She added: “I think an evidentiary hearing with regard to how this all went down makes sense.”

Otake then said she intended to call the lawyers for the state as witnesses at that hearing, according to the transcript of the April 14 hearing. She then adjourned without deciding on the motions before her, and the settlement was announced before the evidentiary hearing was held.

Alexander Silvert, a longtime federal public defender who has retired, said the state at the April hearing faced the possibility of Otake imposing a second set of sanctions in the case.

“If you’re looking at a second set of sanctions, to me, they would be extremely serious and punitive,” he said. It was possible Otake could even have reversed the jury decision, he said.

That likely explains the decision to finally settle the case, he said. For the state to agree to a $2 million settlement in such a case after winning at trial is “extremely rare,” Silvert said.

Revere declined to discuss the settlement, other than to say after it was announced that “we do believe that the new AG saw that there was a problem, that it needed to be corrected, and that these victims should be treated seriously, and she did so, and we’re very pleased about that.”

Lopez said the Department of Public Safety immediately took appropriate action when the sex assault allegations were brought to its attention, and the settlement requires the department to “prioritize WCCC in its ongoing improvement projects concerning the repair, replacement, and installation of new security cameras.”

The settlement still requires approval of the Legislature, which will consider the matter in the session that begins in January.

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