Misled by rumor of cash payouts, 1,800 former NJ inmates sue jail

A notice stating there is no class action settlement fund for payouts to those alleging to have been treated inhumanely in the Camden County Jail is posted in the Mitchell H. Cohen U.S. Courthouse in Camden December 2, 2016. 1,800 people have sued the jail after an online rumor claimed that such fund exists.

Carmen DeJesus was in downtown Camden last month when she noticed a man near the Walter Rand Transportation Center handing out what appeared to be legal forms, offering them to anyone who had ever spent a night in a crowded Camden County jail cell.

The man told DeJesus, 30, that money from a court settlement regarding conditions at the jail was up for grabs. To get it, she only needed to fill out the paperwork to file a lawsuit.

"I was surprised there was anything I could do about it," said DeJesus, of Camden, who said she spent nine days in 2013 crammed into a two-person cell with four others, sleeping on the floor.

DeJesus filed days later, joining about 1,800 people who have sued the jail in the last three months in hopes of getting a payout.

Problem is, there's no money. The lawsuits were sparked by a rumor that spread wildly through the streets of Camden and beyond: Anyone who was held in a crowded jail cell can get a check if he or she files a lawsuit.

The hoax has been perpetuated by people who claim they have received checks and by people passing out the filing paperwork on the street. The Camden County Prosecutor's Office even investigated reports of a man who was selling the paperwork, which is available for free, by claiming that anyone who filled it out would reap thousands.

The men and women suing the jail have filed more than eight times the number of the civil cases submitted in a typical month, overwhelming the staff of the U.S. District Court on Cooper Street and prompting administrators to bring in employees from other federal courthouses to help process the claims. The lawsuits are being filed pro se, without help from attorneys.

And since many claims do not meet certain statutory guidelines, almost all are likely to be dismissed, said U.S. District Judge Jerome B. Simandle. The statute of limitations for personal-injury complaints is two years, and many of the concerns detailed in the suits - that inmates were temporarily held in rooms that were built to hold fewer people - do not rise to the level of constitutional violations, he said.

"I'm proud that everyone has access to the federal system in this way, that the right to file these claims is equal for the rich and the poor," Simandle said in a recent interview. "But the fact that it is based on a false premise is very troubling. There are no checks. There is no fund. And anyone who says they are getting checks or, worse, who is somehow profiting from this, that is just cruel."

Marcy Plye, deputy clerk in charge at the federal courthouse in Camden, noticed in late August that her staff members were giving out more "pro se" packets than usual. Suddenly the photocopied booklets, which contain guidelines for how to file a complaint without an attorney, were flying off the shelves. People filed handwritten claims alleging they suffered pain from sleeping in cramped cells, that they were held in filthy, vermin-infested rooms with drug addicts and sick people, or that correctional officers ignored their complaints.

By mid-September, there were often lines out the door of the small first-floor clerk's office. At one point, Plye's staff gave a pile of packets to the security guards in the lobby to hand out.

"People would say, 'I'm here to get my check,' " Plye said. "They'd say, 'How long before I get my check?' I've never seen anything like it."

Plye's staff of about 22 people generally try to complete the paperwork for all filings within a day or two, and they were in danger of falling behind. They had to send orders to Kinko's for more packets just to keep up with demand, Plye said.

The courthouse typically gets about 200 civil filings a month, said Simandle, the court's chief judge.

"We had days when 50 were filed," he said.

In late October, Simandle took the unusual step of posting a notice in the courthouse stating that there was no settlement money available to former inmates. The notices were also added to the pro se packets.

After hundreds of additional lawsuits were filed, Simandle posted a second notice last week: "The rumor that such a compensation fund exists is false, and it has wasted much time and effort of these plaintiffs and of court personnel."

It's unclear how the rumor began, but Simandle speculates that it stems from a federal civil rights suit filed in 2005 against the jail, a case prompted by concerns about crowding and unsanitary conditions. The jail, which was built to house about 1,300 inmates, has taken steps to address the concerns detailed in the suit, said Lisa Rodriguez, the attorney representing the inmates. The population has fallen from more than 1,800 in 2009 to under 1,200 as of last week, she said.

Rodriguez anticipates a settlement will be finalized in the next few months. That suit, however, is aimed at addressing jail conditions and requests no compensation for inmates - something that Rodriguez has found herself explaining to the people who have besieged her office with phone calls in recent months.

"I hate saying, 'I can't help you,' " Rodriguez said last week. "And the fact that they are being given false hope makes it worse."

Rodriguez is one of several people who have heard about the man selling the pro se packets to passersby on the street. She has also fielded requests from former inmates who ask if they can pay her to help get their money.

"I say, 'Please don't pay anybody who says they can help you get a check!' " she said.

Reports of the unidentified man who was selling legal advice reached the police after he was spotted near the Walter Rand Transportation Center, hawking the papers and claiming that people could get $1,000 for every day spent behind bars.

Robert English, public information officer for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, confirmed that the office looked into the allegations but said the man has apparently stopped selling the papers.

Some who filed suits have been disappointed to learn the money isn't coming. Marlo Gibson, of Collingswood, said that after hearing from people on the street that he could sue the jail, he took a handful of the packets from the courthouse and gave them to friends.

"I wanted everyone to be aware of it," said Gibson, who said he slept on a cell floor numerous times after several arrests over the last 20 years. "I was glad they were doing something."

A few, like DeJesus, said they were suspicious from the beginning.

"People keep saying they know people who got money, but I kind of had a feeling it was too good to be true," she said. "Do they know how many people are going to be up in that building saying they slept on a floor? But I really did sleep on a floor, so I thought I should file one."

Simandle has dismissed about 500 cases but said it could be months before they are all reviewed. He worries the hoax could stoke resentment in people who may persist in believing they are owed money from the court.

"I hope this group of plaintiffs will know that the court is open to them, and that they will understand why their cases are dismissed," he said.

Simandle may have more opportunities to discuss the situation. Just last week, 17 new suits were filed.

asteele@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @AESteele

Staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.