April 05, 2020

Strip-search settlement rejected

PORTLAND – The lead plaintiff in the Knox County Jail strip-search case withdrew from the class action lawsuit Wednesday saying she would sue the Rockland jail and the county on her own. A federal judge delayed approval of a $3 million settlement in the case as attorneys sought a new lead plaintiff and continued to negotiate.

Laurie Tardiff of Thomaston said that the $50,000 bonus payment her attorneys negotiated for her as lead plaintiff in the lawsuit was “minuscule” compared to the damages she suffered when she allegedly was strip-searched illegally more than five years ago. In a letter to her attorneys that was filed this week in U.S. District Court in Portland, Tardiff estimated that her damages totaled $500,000.

“[The settlement] isn’t in the best interest of the whole class nor myself,” she said Wednesday of her decision to pull out of the lawsuit. “I have officially opted out and will seek other counsel.”

The attorneys who successfully turned Tardiff’s individual case into a class action lawsuit no longer represent her and “refuse to,” she said.

Tardiff allegedly was strip-searched at the jail two weeks before Carmen Miller of Rockport won a $450,000 settlement for a strip-search at the Rockland jail.

U.S. District Court Judge Gene Carter set Friday as the deadline for attorneys to file an amended settlement agreement that would not include Tardiff, who said she would hire a new attorney and file a new lawsuit.

Carter was scheduled Wednesday morning to recertify the class and approve the tentative settlement, hammered out two days before a jury trial was to begin. Instead, Carter rejected both settlement proposals submitted by both sides, said Peter Marchesi, the Augusta attorney who represents the county, and negotiations continued into late afternoon.

Tardiff, who operates what she described as a “licensed facility,” also sent Carter a copy of an e-mail addressed to her former attorney, Robert Stolt of Augusta, dated Sept 29. In it, Tardiff listed 29 reasons her damages totaled $500,000 rather than $50,000 including:

. Continued treatment including therapy and medication for post-traumatic stress disorder.

. Loss of business contracts in excess of $250,000 a year.

. Cost of hiring people to work at her business because of her “false” arrest.

. Time away from work due to depression.

She also stated that her membership in the local Kiwanis Club has been tabled and she had been turned down as a school volunteer because of the publicity in the case.

“The amount of the settlement pays the attorneys,” she said Wednesday. “The reality is the class will get maybe $300 each.”

Despite Tardiff’s disapproval, her former attorneys, who continue to represent potential class members, have said they are pleased with the proposed settlement.

“After four years of extensive litigation,” Robert Stolt of Augusta said of the proposed settlement, “we are pleased to announce that we are finally able to stop this outrageous practice of strip-searching everyone in Knox County. The funds will enable those whose rights were violated to receive compensation.”

Marchesi took issue with that language when asked Wednesday afternoon for a reaction to the press release, which he did not know had been issued.

“The press release contained serious factual misrepresentations,” Marchesi said. “The suggestion that [jail personnel] engaged in strip-searching every citizen in Knox County sounds good but is categorically denied and defied by the evidence in the case.”

He said both sides had agreed to use jail records to determine who could make a claim under the proposed settlement.

“They reveal that there was significant compliance with all the rules and regulations, including constitutional mandates with respect to strip-searches,” Marchesi said.

When contacted Wednesday, Knox County Sheriff Daniel Davey, who was facing the possibility of being held personally liable in the case, declined comment, saying he had not been in court Wednesday and was waiting to hear from his attorney.

Knox County Commissioner Anne Beebe-Center could not be reached Wednesday for comment.

Maine law allows strip-searches of detainees charged with felonies that are violent, drug-related or involve weapons. Detainees charged with nonviolent, nondrug- or nonweapon-related infractions and those charged with misdemeanors are not subject to strip-searches unless there is a reasonable suspicion they are concealing contraband.

Tardiff sued Knox County and the sheriff in December 2002, alleging her civil and constitutional rights were violated on Feb. 7, 2001, when she was strip-searched by a female officer at the Rockland jail after being arrested on a felony charge of tampering with a witness. That charge and a charge of violating conditions of release, a misdemeanor, later were dismissed.

Carter in 2003 certified the lawsuit as a class action and it began what has been a procedural roller-coaster ride that was supposed to have ended relatively amicably Wednesday.

The proposed settlement, fashioned after a similar strip-search lawsuit against York County that was settled last year, establishes a $3 million fund with 30 percent of the fund set aside for attorneys fees. Last week, Knox County commissioners voted to contribute $375,000 in county funds toward the settlement. The remaining money will come from the county’s insurer.

Neither the county nor Davey admit liability or fault, according to the terms of the defense’s version of the settlement. The defendants settled the case “solely for the purpose of buying their peace and freedom from litigation,” the proposed settlement states.

The proposed agreement covers people who were strip-searched without reasonable suspicion at the Rockland jail between Nov. 19, 2002, and Dec. 31, 2004. People who believe they are entitled to damages have until Jan. 5 to file a claim. Only one claim per person will be paid no matter how many times he or she may have been strip-searched illegally at the jail during that time period, the terms stated.

A hearing to review the case was scheduled for April 2.

When Carter approves a settlement, he also will issue an injunction ordering that individuals being held at Knox County Jail on misdemeanor or felony charges that do not involve weapons, violence or contraband substances not be strip-searched unless corrections officers have a reasonable suspicion that they may possess weapons or a controlled substance.

Jail personnel also will be ordered to keep a log of every strip-search that includes the time and date of the search, the identity of every officer involved, and the facts found to constitute reasonable suspicion for the search.

“The injunction,” Stolt said in the press release, “is an important part of the settlement so that these type of unlawful searches will not occur again.”

There are 7,000 to 7,500 potential claimants in the Knox County case, Tardiff’s former attorneys have said, approximately the same number as in the York County lawsuit. In that case, the final settlement arrangements included paying $1,670 each to about 1,350 people.

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