Two years after state corrections officials fired a psychologist for exposing the death of a mentally ill inmate at Mule Creek State Prison, a federal judge has tossed out the whistleblower lawsuit he filed over his dismissal.
U.S. District Judge Troy L. Nunley dismissed the lawsuit Eric Reininga filed against state officials, writing in an eight-page order that he could not “find any cases that prohibit a government employer from firing an employee who allegedly violated Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) disclosure laws.”
Reininga and a spokesman for the corrections department declined to comment.
The dismissal comes 15 months after Reininga filed his suit charging that corrections officials routinely covered up how inmates died and operated under a “code of silence.”
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The dismissal also comes one year after state officials agreed to pay out $750,000 to the parents of inmate Joseph Damien Duran, 35, who died after being blasted in the face by pepper spray because he refused to remove his hands from the food port in his cell door. Duran breathed through a tube in his throat and was left in his cell until he was later found dead, despite requests from medical staffers that he be removed and cleaned up.
Seventeen days after his death on Sept. 7, 2013, prison officials had Duran’s body cremated and the ashes dumped at sea, despite the fact that they had not notified his parents he was dead. Officials say they tried calling the Durans and sending a telegram to an old address before disposing of the remains.
Reininga learned of the case in his job reviewing inmate deaths for the department, and said he decided to leak documents about Duran’s death to The Sacramento Bee because he believed the circumstances were being covered up.
“Joseph Duran didn’t need to die,” he said in an interview after filing his suit. “He died a needless, horrific death ...”
Duran’s parents did not learn their son was dead until they were contacted by The Bee following Reininga’s release of documents to a reporter. The explosive case later spawned a series of investigations, an apology to the parents by a corrections official and a change in policy about what efforts must be made to notify relatives when an inmate dies. The department also tightened up regulations on when pepper spray may be used, and the case forced the reopening of a federal court hearing into the treatment of mentally ill inmates.
Despite numerous investigations, Reininga’s lawsuit alleged that he was the only person fired as a result of Duran’s death.
He later said he believed he had no recourse but to leak the material after the Amador County coroner initially listed the cause of death as a suicide and the corrections department later classified it as “accidental.”
“I couldn’t live with it,” he said. “I couldn’t live with myself being a part of the code of silence, and I’m furious about it. I lose my job, and yet they’re the ones who did the wrong thing.”