Mentally ill people who were cast out of a Las Vegas psychiatric hospital and issued Greyhound bus tickets to cities across the country without proper consent, care or planning soon will have their day in court.
A Nevada court has ruled that James Flavy Coy Brown, whose 2013 bus trip took him to Sacramento, and potentially hundreds of others who had similar experiences, may as a group pursue damages against Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital in Las Vegas, Southern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services, which oversees the hospital, and various treatment professionals.
Sacramento attorney Mark Merin filed the class-action lawsuit on behalf of Brown and others who allegedly were victims of "Greyhound therapy," or patient dumping, by the state's primary psychiatric hospital.
Martha Framsted, spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, declined Tuesday to comment on the latest legal action.
The Clark County District Court granted class-action status to the lawsuit's plaintiffs this week after years of legal wrangling. Merin now will launch an intensive search for Rawson-Neal patients, many of them homeless and psychotic, who were issued one-way Greyhound tickets by the hospital.
The Sacramento Bee documented Brown's story beginning in 2013. Subsequent investigations by the newspaper found that Rawson-Neal regularly discharged homeless patients via Greyhound bus, sometimes to places where they had never been and had no ties.
Brown, who suffers from schizophrenia, was desperate and confused when he arrived in Sacramento, a place he had never visited and where he had no connections. No prior arrangements had been made for his care or housing. He told police he was advised by the Nevada psychiatric hospital to "call 911" when he arrived in the capital city.
He was on the streets for days before he was admitted to UC Davis Medical Center, and then to a group home in Sacramento. He reunited with his daughter in his home state of North Carolina for a time, and now lives in a care home there.
The Bee found that Brown's experience was not an isolated one. The newspaper discovered that Rawson-Neal bused roughly 1,500 patients out of Nevada between 2008 and 2013, a third of them to California. Some of the patients, The Bee documented, became homeless and went missing after their bus trips. Some died tragically. Some committed serious crimes in their new cities.
Rawson-Neal denied that it routinely sent patients to other cities without planning for their welfare, but federal and state investigations confirmed other cases in addition to Brown's. The hospital has said that it no longer buses people out of state without chaperones.
The Bee's stories about the busing scandal won several national journalism awards, and were a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting.
The class-action complaint against Rawson-Neal alleges that patients "were discharged with deliberate indifference to, and reckless disregard of, their serious medical and psychiatric needs for which no plan was developed or followed."
Patients, it states, "were administered powerful psychotropic medications and, while unable to intelligently and knowingly consent, were involuntarily placed into taxis and conveyed to Greyhound buses into which they were loaded" for trips to destinations across the country.
The suit accuses the hospital, its staff and the mental health agency with negligence and breach of fiduciary duty. It asks for an injunction preventing the hospital from improperly discharging patients, as well as unspecified financial damages.
In its order granting class certification, District Judge Mark Denton said the case's allegations "rise and fall based on whether defendants implemented a blanket policy" to discharge patients out of state without adequate documentation and planning.
When it routinely was sending unescorted patients out on buses, the Nevada hospital was under financial stress because of severe budget cuts and eager to discharge poor patients, Merin said in an interview with The Bee. Rawson-Neal's staff was "under a 'hurry up and get these people out of here' directive," he said.
To assist Merin's team in locating previous patients, the court has ordered the hospital to supply records, including any contact information, for everyone who was given one-way tickets during the class period, which the court ruled began in 2011 and runs through the present. As many as 700 people could be affected, Merin said.
"We're setting up a process whereby we reach out to every one of those people for whom we have contact information so that we can try to get notice to them," he said. "Otherwise, we are left sending notices to homeless shelters and placing public announcements in newspapers. It's very hard to reach this class of individual."
The trial is scheduled for Aug. 24 in Nevada, though the case could settle before then, Merin said.
Any settlement would require attorneys to negotiate the amount paid to everyone who is identified as part of the class and wants to participate in the lawsuit, he said.
"We would get claim forms out to everyone, so everybody will get compensation of some sort," Merin said.
Reached at his care home in North Carolina, Brown, whose story triggered the investigations and lawsuit against the hospital, said he was pleased that the class-action case finally is moving forward, more than five years after he stepped off a bus in downtown Sacramento following his discharge 15 hours earlier from Rawson-Neal.
Brown, who had been homeless in Las Vegas, had only a few bottles of Ensure nutritional supplements to sustain him during his trip.
Now 53, Brown said he is unhappy that he currently lives in a retirement home where most residents are far older than him. "But I don't have any money or any other place to go," he said. "So it's better than being on the streets. It's better than being homeless."
Brown said he never imagined that his case would have drawn national attention, nor that it would still be moving through the legal system after so many years.
"I feel good that it's going ahead," Brown said. "I almost gave up on it, for sure. I got to the point where I felt that everybody had forgotten about me."