Arbitrator says county must rehire jail officer
Ruling finds staffer not responsible in inmate's death
SCHENECTADY COUNTY Schenectady County will have to rehire and give back pay to a corrections officer fired after a female inmate died on her watch at the jail in February 2011, an arbitrator ruled recently.
The arbitrator found that Dusty Luckhurst’s actions did not play any substantive role in 28-year-old Latisha Mason’s death at the jail; however, the arbitrator did find she violated policy by leaving the unresponsive inmate unsupervised when she went to call medical staff.
The arbitrator reversed Luckhurst’s termination, ordered that she be assessed a three-week suspension that she has served already and be given back pay for the time she was out of work.
“As the finder of fact herein, I can only conclude that there is no proof whatsoever that the responsibility for Mason’s demise may be ascribed to Luckhurst,” arbitrator James Markowitz wrote in the 31-page ruling issued in late August. “This determination obviates the county’s contention that [Luckhurst’s] termination was justified, in part, by the consequence of her behavior, which was Mason’s death.”
County Attorney Chris Gardener was dismayed by the ruling. He supported Sheriff Dominic Dagostino’s decision to terminate Luckhurst, but said the county will abide by the ruling and allow her to return to her post next week.
“The sheriff took decisive action to deal with the situation, which he believed to merit termination,” he said Friday. “We presented the case we agreed with the sheriff that the case merited termination.”
Luckhurst was the only corrections officer fired in wake of Mason’s death, Gardner said. She earns an annual salary of about $37,000, but it is unclear how much back pay she is owed.
Dagostino declined to comment, citing the ruling as a personnel matter.
Calls to Ennio Corsi, the attorney who represented Luckhurst for the Schenectady County Sheriff’s Benevolent Association, were not returned. Attempts to reach a union official were not successful.
City police initially found Mason, a dental hygienist and single mother from Connecticut, collapsed and drug-addled in a snowbank in downtown Schenectady. Over the next four days, the highly erratic woman bounced between the custody of the Schenectady County Jail and Ellis Hospital five times
Mason tested positive for a toxic cocktail of substances, including PCP and marijuana, when she was initially admitted to the hospital. But despite her deteriorating state, she was released back onto the street or into the custody of the sheriff’s department.
Mason’s final hours of life were spent in a dazed and despondent state in her jail cell. On the morning of Mason’s death, Luckhurst tried to rouse her for breakfast and noticed she was unresponsive, according to the arbitration ruling.
The corrections officer then summoned a nurse for the woman, but failed to alert superiors of any medical emergency. Luckhurst also prevented nurses from entering the cell until an emergency was declared.
The state Commission of Correction in June released a highly critical report about the treatment of Mason. Among other findings, the report determined that Ellis improperly discharged a psychotic and intoxicated patient to the jail, which was known to be incapable of caring for her.
Luckhurst was fired about five months after Mason’s death. In a scathing notice of termination, Dagostino noted the long period in which Luckhurst had prevented nurses from reaching Mason.
“Your actions in their totality in and of themselves merit termination since you demonstrated depraved indifference to the welfare of Inmate Latisha Mason and delayed the provision of medical care to her from 7:49 am to 8:06 am, a period of 17 minutes,” he wrote in the notice, which was included as part of the arbitrator’s ruling. “Inmate Latisha Mason died and your gross negligence and depraved indifference delayed the timely provision of medical attention.”
The ruling, however, found that Luckhurst followed the jail’s policies precisely with all but one exception: When she let Mason out of her sight to call for medical attention. The ruling indicated that she could have summoned help by using her radio.
“Regardless of her benevolent motivation and regardless of the fact that her actions in no way led to Mason’s demise, the grievant simply did not do what she should have done,” the ruling states.