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Wayne Law Alumna Deborah LaBelle Reflects on 13-year Lawsuit, $100 Million Settlement

August 18, 2009

DETROIT (Aug. 18, 2009) – Thirteen years is a long time to devote to a lawsuit. Just ask Wayne State University Law School alumna Deborah LaBelle.

LaBelle, a long-time human rights attorney based out of Ann Arbor, Mich., filed Nunn v. Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) and Neal v. MDOC in 1996 after working on a class action lawsuit addressing the lack of comparable rehabilitative training and educational opportunities for women as opposed to male prisoners in Michigan’s prison system. Both lawsuits related to wrongful treatment of women prisoners in Michigan.

“As I was working on the training and education class action, I noticed more women started to report abuse,” said LaBelle. “They were very concerned that it was getting worse and younger girls were being targeted – girls as young as 14 are placed in the general women’s prisons. We had started to get apprenticeships and educational classes in the prisons; however, the sexual abuse was interfering with the women's abilities to take part in these opportunities.”

It was time to rally and take action. Something that, according to LaBelle, took time and a great deal of courage on behalf of those filing.

“It took a number of years for the women to come together and agree to support each other,” LaBelle said. “They had to be willing to face the inevitable retaliation that would result in filing the litigation as they would still be imprisoned with the men charged with sexually assaulting them and under the authority of the administration that was charged with deliberate indifference to their safety.” 

Nunn v. MDOC was heard in Washtenaw County Circuit Court in 1997 and led to a signed settlement in 2000 by MDOC that stopped cross gender pat downs and removed male staff members from direct supervision of incarcerated women prisoners. Neal v. MDOC proved to be a much longer battle.

The class action lawsuit brought by 500 women prisoners who were sexually assaulted and/or raped by Michigan prison guards lasted until 2009. Though faced with a number of obstacles throughout the duration of the lawsuit, LaBelle and her team – Shannon Dunn, ’98, Cary McGehee, Michael Pitt, ’74, Peggy Goldberg Pitt, Molly Reno, ’78, Ronald Reosti, Ralph Sirlin, Richard Soble and Patricia Streeter, '73 (WSU undergraduate degree) – maintained their focus and commitment to the case.

“Our challenges had to be kept in perspective in light of the ongoing abuse and retaliation that our clients were faced with on a daily basis,” LaBelle said. “The hardest times were the stays that were granted by the appellate courts resulting in our inability to take any action to stop the ongoing abuse.”

A $100 million settlement was reached with the state July 15, 2009, ending the 13-year-long legal battle. The Honorable Timothy P. Connors, ’80, presided over the case.

A Detroit Free Press article that ran at that time quoted LaBelle as saying “This is a good deal for the state. The damage had gone on so long and the harm had occurred was so deep. If we tried all of these, the cost to the state would have been a billion dollars.”

Today, she remains pleased that her team was able to make some significant positive changes in the culture of the women's prisons – not only in Michigan but nationally.

“Advocates in other states relied upon the rulings in this state to file litigation, change the staffing in other state prisons and to enact preventative protocols to address custodial sexual abuse,” she said. “I am happy with the recognition of the depth of the violation of the basic human dignity of our clients and the fact that the juries understood that what was at stake. I am also happy that the state recognized the harm that was caused and that our clients will have the opportunity to obtain treatment to begin the healing process.” 

Thirteen years on a case can certainly impact one’s career and life. Through this lawsuit, LaBelle has begun working with international human rights organizations and expanding the framework for challenging the violations of her clients’ rights through the lens of domestic human rights violations.

“My clients and the opportunity to work with them and an amazing group of lawyers changed me as an attorney in such a broad and deep manner that I really can't detail it and probably haven’t yet absorbed it,” she said. “I would do it all again but am grateful I don’t have to.”

LaBelle maintains a private practice and currently serves as the director of the Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative with the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union. She has authored a vast number of publications and spoken on a variety of issues related to gender and civil rights. Select honors include the Wade McCree Justice Award (2009), the National Lawyers Guild Lawyer for the People Award (2009) and the Public Interest Foundation Trial Lawyer of the Year Award (2008).

About Wayne Law
Wayne State University Law School has educated and served the Detroit metropolitan area since its inception as Detroit City Law School in 1927. Located at 471 West Palmer Street in Detroit’s re-energized historic cultural center, the Law School remains committed to student success and features modern lecture and court facilities, multi-media and distance learning classrooms, a 250-seat auditorium, and the Arthur Neef Law Library, which houses one of the nation's 40 largest legal collections. Taught by an internationally recognized and expert faculty, Wayne Law students experience a high-quality legal education via a growing array of hands-on curricular offerings, client clinics, and access to well over 100 internships with local and non-profit entities each year. Its 11,000 living alumni, who work in every state of the nation and more than a dozen foreign countries, are experts in their disciplines and include leading members of the local, national and international legal communities. For more information, visit www.law.wayne.edu

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