Sullivan County prepares defense in $3 million federal lawsuit

J. H. Osborne • Nov 10, 2019 at 1:30 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — County Attorney Dan Street met behind closed doors Thursday evening with members of the Sullivan County Commission to discuss the $3 million lawsuit filed in federal court by a former inmate of the Sullivan County Jail. State law allows such meetings, which exclude the public, to allow an attorney to talk with elected officials about an active lawsuit. It allows strategy to be discussed without showing their hand to the plaintiff.

The Times News contacted Street Friday to ask what he could share about the meeting.

Street said he basically explained some points of the case to the commissioners who stayed for the executive session, which came at the end of two back-to-back meetings related to the overcrowded jail. Street said a lot of commissioners didn’t stay to hear what he had to say.

Asked why this lawsuit is different than others filed by inmates over the past couple of decades, Street noted two things: This lawsuit seeks injunctive relief (the plaintiff is asking the judge to direct the county to make changes), and the lawsuit seeks to be certified as a class action suit — meaning the number of plaintiffs could grow into a larger group. In this case it could be much, much larger. Street said the lawsuit seeks to be certified a class action lawsuit representing anyone who was incarcerated in the Sullivan County Jail in the last five years — and all inmates going forward.

Street said this is the first lawsuit of its kind since the 1980s. That case led to the construction of the current jail.

Travis Bellew of Kingsport filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Greeneville nearly two weeks ago. State law gives the county 21 days from that filing date to submit its response. Named as defendants are Sullivan County, Sheriff Jeff Cassidy, Capt. Lee Carswell and former corrections officer Christopher Sabo.

Street said once he has submitted his response, hearing dates will begin to be scheduled, and he expects one of the first hearings will be on whether the lawsuit will receive class action status.

The lawsuit makes a number of claims against the defendants, including that the jail suffers from overcrowding and understaffing, that the facility is poorly designed, has untrained officers, and is lacking a system that separates violent inmates from nonviolent ones.

Bellew, a former inmate of the jail, was assaulted by Sabo in October 2018, according to the lawsuit.

According to court records and published reports, Sabo was fired three days after Bellew was assaulted and Sabo later pleaded guilty to assault.

The lawsuit argues Sabo’s conduct was largely the product of the violent culture created by the conditions at the decrepit jail.

“Sullivan County has created and maintains a jail environment in which inmates face a substantial risk of being harmed by violence from corrections officers or other inmates,” the lawsuit states.

Among the lawsuit’s claims: At times only two officers are watching upwards of 300 inmates; the jail has numerous design flaws, such as blind spots, maze-like hallways and cameras that can be easily covered; in the heat of the summer, the HVAC units continually break down; and mold can be seen growing in the cells.

“In short, Sullivan County has adopted a widespread practice of deliberate indifference to these dangerous and deplorable conditions,” the lawsuit states.

More claims in the lawsuit include: use of excessive force; failure to protect an inmate in custody; failure to train and supervise officers; unsafe jail conditions; assault and battery; false imprisonment; and outrageous conduct.

Bellew is seeking $500,000 in compensatory damages and $2.5 million in punitive damages.

Street said he plans to defend the county, Cassidy, and Carswell without outside counsel — but he had informed Mayor Richard Venable and the county commissioners who did stay for his talk that if at some point he needs help, he will bring in help. Venable told the Times News the decision to hire outside counsel is one that he and Street can make without a vote by the full commission.

Will Street represent Sabo? Street said it isn’t likely, but he has requested information from the county’s insurance provider about that question. Street said the county would certainly defend a former employee who left on good terms, but Sabo was fired and pleaded guilty to the assault that helped prompt the lawsuit the county now faces.