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St. Louis County settles former jail staffer's lawsuit

The county denied a former medical worker's account of being strangled by a correctional officer, but commissioners agreed to pay $55,000 to resolve the federal case.

FILE: St. Louis County Jail
A general population area at the St. Louis County Jail in Duluth is seen on Nov. 28, 2018. Inmates eat meals, play games, read and watch TV in the day room, with individual cells arranged around and above the open space. Bob King / File / Duluth News Tribune
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A former medical contractor at the St. Louis County Jail will receive $55,000 to drop a federal lawsuit alleging she was physically attacked by a correctional officer in an unsanctioned training exercise.

The County Board approved the settlement with Natalina Slaughter at its meeting last week in Saginaw. Commissioners unanimously voted to approve the deal without discussion.

"The settlement amount is reasonable given the facts and circumstances of the action, and the proposed settlement will allow St. Louis County to avoid the risk and expense associated with further litigation," read a letter from County Administrator Kevin Gray and County Attorney Kim Maki.

Slaughter, now of Minneapolis, filed the case in March, alleging that Correctional Officer James Burhans "lunged" at her and began choking her in a Sept. 16, 2016, incident that left her fearing for her life. She claimed she "experienced severe physical pain and discomfort as well as severe emotional distress during the attack."

Slaughter had just started at the Duluth jail after being hired as a medical technician for MEnD Correctional Care, a private company that contracts with correctional facilities for inmate medical services.

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PREVIOUSLY: Former St. Louis County Jail worker alleges officer choked her in 'unprovoked and unjustified' attack A federal lawsuit filed this week by a former medical technician at the Duluth jail claims that the officer had a history of attacking new medical staff "as a form of training exercise."
"Ms. Slaughter was walking through an isolated hallway when defendant Officer Burhans lunged at her, placed one hand around her neck, and started to compress and strangle her," the complaint stated. "Officer Burhans attacked plaintiff with no justification whatsoever and without any prior notice or consent."

Slaughter said she defended herself by pushing a medication cart at Burhans and trying to free herself from his grasp before the officer eventually let go.

The complaint, filed by Minneapolis civil rights attorney Zorislav Leyderman, also claimed that Burhans "had a previous history of conducting similar unprovoked attacks on new medical staff at St. Louis County Jail as a form of training exercise," though he did not provide any supporting documentation in the suit.

Slaughter missed a month of work due to the incident, developed suicidal thoughts and rarely left her house for approximately six months, the complaint said. She reportedly suffered injuries to her face, neck and legs, along with "severe emotional/physiological trauma and distress" that caused her to develop PTSD and panic attacks, and exacerbated existing mental health conditions.

The suit alleged that Burhans and the county engaged in battery, negligence and negligent retention in violation of Slaughter's Fourth and 14th Amendment rights and Minnesota state law.

While the case was still in its early stages, the county had denied the validity of Slaughter's account, and Burhans has remained employed at the jail.

"The alleged strangulation did not actually occur," Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Nick Campanario wrote in a July filing.

"This will be demonstrated by, among other things, the testimony of Corrections Officer Burhans, the corroborating testimony of a MEnD employee who witnessed the interaction at issue, and the nonexistence of medical records, photographs, and other documents supporting Slaughter’s false allegations."

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Leyderman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the settlement.

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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