Seven-Figure Settlement for Atheist Calif. Addict | Courthouse News Service
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Seven-Figure Settlement for Atheist Calif. Addict

(CN) - A California atheist who was jailed after refusing to join a 12-step program because of its religious themes reached a $2 million settlement, his attorney said Tuesday.

Barry Hazle sued his parole officer, California corrections officials and Westcare Corp. after they revoked his probation for a drug conviction.

After pleading no-contest in 2006 to possession of methamphetamine, Hazle said he told officials several times that his atheism made him reluctant to participate in religious-treatment programs

In 2007, however, Hazle was allegedly paroled to a 90-day residential program that offered only the 12 Steps, many of which call for explicit acceptance of God.

Finding Hazle "disruptive," though in a "congenial way," for refusing to participate, staff reported him to his parole office, who sent him back to prison for about 100 days.

Hazle then filed a federal civil rights action seeking damages for false imprisonment, among other things.

U.S. District Judge Garland Burrell in San Francisco found that the defendants' decision to return Hazle to prison had violated the First Amendment. Burrell turned the issue over to a jury to determine the amount of damages, but the jurors came back with an award of no damages.

Hazel appealed to the 9th Circuit after Judge Burrell refused his move for a new trial, and a three-judge appellate panel ruled in August 2013 that some kind of compensation was mandatory, "given this undisputed finding that Hazle's constitutional rights were violated."

The appellate panel also reversed the lower court's summary judgment in favor of Westcare and remanded Hazle's civil rights claims against the state contractor for trial.

The parties filed a stipulation Tuesday for voluntary dismissal with prejudice in Sacramento.

Hazle's attorney in San Francisco John Heller applauded his client's bravery.

"I suspect there's a lot of people who don't have the knowledge of their rights or the courage of their convictions that Barry did to face a fight about this, and have been forced to submit to 12-Step religion-based treatment against their wishes," Heller said in an interview.

In exchange for Hazle dismissing his civil-rights claims, the state will pay him $1 million. Westcare will kick in another $925,000.

"The settlement compensates Hazle for the violation of his rights, and for litigation fees and costs in the lengthy trial and appellate proceedings," Heller said in a statement.

A spokesman noted that the corrections department "currently ... does not require a 12-step program as a condition of parole."

Heller noted that this was not always the case. Discovery revealed that Westcare, which contracts with the state to provide treatment facilities for parolees in a large section of California, had only contracted with 12-Step programs.

"There are indeed many secular treatment options," Heller said in an interview. "12-Step is not the only name in the game by any means."

"I hope that one positive result of this case and this resolution is that things will get changed," Heller added.

Attorneys for Westcare Corp. did not immediately return a request for comment.

The DOC spokesman noted that the finding of liability "meant that CDCR would have been responsible for damages and attorney fees."

"In lieu of a second trial, CDCR negotiated a settlement in the amount of $1 million," he added.

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