by Jim Mustian, jmustian@theadvocate.com, July 20, 2014

An Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office deputy suffering from allergic hypersensitivity has filed a lawsuit against Sheriff Marlin Gusman, blaming his recent diagnosis on prolonged exposure to toxic mold at Orleans Parish Prison and the Criminal District Courthouse.

The deputy, Don Marshall Jr., intends to seek class-action status that would expand his claim to include other Sheriff’s Office employees, though he is the only plaintiff named in the lawsuit.

“The evidence we have gathered establishes that Sheriff Gusman has been aware of the toxic environmental conditions at his facilities for quite some time,” Marshall’s attorney, Brian Glorioso, of Slidell, said in a written statement.

“Sheriff Gusman has not only failed to take action to cure the toxic conditions, but he has actively ordered the concealment of these conditions,” Glorioso said, accusing the sheriff of using paint or bleach to hide mold from inspectors.

Philip Stelly, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman, said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

The city of New Orleans also was named as a defendant, as were four wardens of various OPP facilities.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in Orleans Parish Civil District Court, offers few specifics about the alleged mold at OPP but contends that its hazards violate a court-ordered plan for jail reform, known as the federal consent decree, that went into effect in October.

A medical specialist attributed Marshall’s medical condition, which includes respiratory illness, to exposure to toxic mold, Glorioso said.

“It’s certainly likely that he’s not the only person who has been affected by these conditions,” Glorioso said of Marshall in an interview last month.

Federal authorities and court-appointed experts have identified a panoply of problems at OPP, from outdated policies and insufficient staffing to aging buildings and rampant inmate violence. Mold, however, has been more of a footnote than a common complaint.

As the U.S. Department of Justice was seeking in 2012 to intervene in the class-action inmate lawsuit that prompted the consent decree, department officials, in court filings, cited the presence of mold “throughout OPP” among other unsanitary conditions. The word “mold,” however, did not appear a single time in a 139-page progress report on the jail’s condition released in February by a team of experts monitoring implementation of the consent decree.

Marshall’s eight-page petition also cites unnamed contractors hired in 2006 to remove mold and “other contamination” from the courthouse, whose basement was ravaged by the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina. The contractors, who are also listed as unidentified defendants, “created considerable airborne toxins,” which Marshall was “exposed to each time he was required to transport prisoners to the courthouse,” the lawsuit says.

“The employees of those contractors wore protective gear” while removing mold from the jail and courthouse, Glorioso said in his statement. “However, protective gear was not provided to the deputies, nor were the deputies warned of the potential dangers. As a result, some of these dedicated public servants are now experiencing severe medical problems.”

Glorioso wrote Gusman a letter in April informing him of Marshall’s pending claim, citing a Louisiana law that requires employers to ensure a “reasonably safe” work environment. That letter said Marshall had been placed by his doctor under medical restrictions that prohibited him from “continuing to work in the sheriff’s facilities which are environmentally hazardous due to toxins.”

In his prepared statement, Glorioso said he planned to notify state and federal health authorities — as well as the Department of Justice and Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office — “of the continued presence of toxic mold in the facilities causing an immediate danger to the health and welfare” of employees at the jail and courthouse.

The attorney encouraged “any present or former employee, former or present inmate, attorney, family member, or any person who has been inside any of the sheriff’s jails or the Criminal District Courthouse” to consult with their physician if they have experienced medical conditions that may be linked to exposure to mold.

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