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DeKalb judge strikes answer by Scientology-linked rehab
A DeKalb County judge has struck the answer of a Church of Scientology-linked drug rehab program that's being sued for the heroin overdose death of a man while he was in treatment.
State Court Judge Stacey Hydrick on Monday issued the heavy sanction on Narconon of Georgia, saying the defendant "provided false, misleading written discovery responses and deposition testimony" in response to requests for evidence about claims that the rehab center ran an unsafe and unlicensed facility.
The punishment means that allegations contained in the complaint will be deemed to be true when the case goes to trial in February, said plaintiffs attorney Jeffrey Harris.
Harris said Narconon's discovery abuse was "so pervasive and so bad."
"I'm confident there remain documents out there that we still haven't gotten," said Harris, of Harris Penn Lowry Delcampo. "Some of them I know are missing because the documents we have talk about them. The documents we do have make it clear that there are other documents that have not been produced."
Hydrick's order noted that she didn't find fault with the conduct of Narconon of Georgia's lawyers, Stevan Miller and Barbara Marschalk of Drew Eckl & Farnham. Instead, the judge blamed their client.
Narconon has requested a certificate of immediate review to pursue an appeal with the Court of Appeals, Miller and Marschalk said in an email. Hydrick hadn't signed the certificate as of Thursday.
"We respectfully disagree with the Order signed by Judge Hydrick on Monday, November 5th. We are now pursuing the only avenue available to us to try to seek appellate review of the Order at this time," Miller and Marschalk wrote.
Although Harris said striking the answer is the appropriate sanction, he would have preferred that Narconon had turned over documents indicating willful negligence.
He said he'll be able to show jurors boards displaying facts that are deemed to be proven, but he'll have to lay an evidentiary foundation that the jury can use to assess damages. Hydrick's order didn't cover racketeering claims contained in an amended complaint, so those assertions will still need to be proven, Harris said.
"Narconon engaged in a pattern of misrepresenting themselves to both courts and to patients and their families," he said. "They were essentially running a drug rehab facility that was basically a zoo. There just wasn't any supervision and it was completely out of control."
Harris said he couldn't specify the amount of money he will seek for wrongful death, punitive and racketeering damages.
Ex-Marine ordered to rehab
The discovery dispute occurred in litigation over the June 2008 death of Patrick Desmond at age 28.
Desmond was a former Marine living in Florida in 2006 when police pulled him over during a traffic stop and found small amounts of cocaine in his car, according to the complaint.
His prosecution was deferred in favor of a Brevard County Drug Court program that allowed him to participate in an approved drug rehabilitation program in lieu of adjudication of criminal charges. The drug court required that he be enrolled for six months in an in-patient, residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility.
Desmond's parents found information about Narconon online and enrolled him in the private program based on the belief that Narconon provided residential in-patient drug and alcohol counseling that would meet the drug court's requirements, the complaint said.
But Narconon made false representations to Brevard County Drug Court, Desmond's probation officer and Desmond's parents that it would fulfill the drug court's conditions, the complaint added.
Desmond was enrolled as a paying patient 4½ months before he was permitted to graduate from the program. He was allowed to stay on as a staff member for the remainder of the six-month period.
After returning to his family's home in Florida, Desmond failed a required alcohol test, and the drug court compelled him to re-enroll with Narconon, the complaint said.
The night of his death, Desmond drank beer and vodka with Narconon's employees and staff members in a staff member's apartment at the Delgado Development, the Sandy Springs complex where Narconon leased units to house patients.
He then left the premises with a current Narconon student and former student to buy heroin, and other Narconon employees didn't try to stop him, the complaint said.
A few hours later, emergency personnel responding to a 911 call found Desmond in cardiopulmonary arrest caused by a heroin overdose.
In their suit, Desmond's family claims that the facility misrepresented itself to drug court authorities as a residential program when it was really an outpatient program, and that there were no safeguards preventing Desmond from drinking alcohol and searching for heroin with two other people in the program.
The suit also accuses Narconon of teaching tenets of Scientology in place of legitimate counseling and drug abuse rehabilitation.
The judge's order said that Narconon of Georgia's executive director, Mary Rieser, made "patently false" responses in a deposition when she said students weren't aware of the circumstances of Desmond's death and when she said statements about his death had been shredded.
A privilege log identified 1½ years into the litigation detailed that Rieser had investigated the death and described statements about Desmond's death that had never been disclosed to the plaintiffs.
Rieser also made misleading statements when she said Narconon had no control over Delgado Development, the order said. Hydrick wrote that Narconon had conducted an investigation into housing conditions at Delgado and had put it "on probation."
Narconon deceived both patients and drug courts across the country by asserting it was running a residential facility, Harris said. When Narconon mailed letters, it altered its letterhead to remove the word "outpatient," he said.
The Georgia Department of Community Health is investigating Narconon, but it doesn't comment further on open investigations, said spokeswoman Pamela Keene. The state has previously said it didn't have enough evidence to prove that Narconon was operating a residential facility when it was licensed only for outpatient care, according to a report by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month.
Narconon of Georgia's treatment is informed by the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, who founded Scientology, but Rieser told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Narconon has no affiliation with the church. Rieser didn't respond to an emailed request for comment Thursday.
The complaint against Narconon says there is a connection to the Church of Scientology.
Narconon of Georgia is a subsidiary, licensee or alter ego of California-based Narconon International, which operates drug rehabilitation facilities worldwide, according to the complaint. Narconon International is a subsidiary of the Association of Better Living and Education, which oversees drug rehab and other activities of the Church of Scientology, it said.
The case is Desmond v. Narconon, No. 10A28641.