Former SLO County Jail inmate drops malpractice lawsuit against Public Defender’s Office

A San Luis Obispo man who said ineffective legal assistance from his court-appointed attorney led to a three-month stay in solitary confinement in County Jail while he was in mental health crisis has withdrawn his malpractice lawsuit against the Public Defender’s Office.

John Wyman, who ultimately pleaded down three felony resisting arrest charges to a single misdemeanor count in May, had claimed his public defender didn’t conduct any investigation into the facts of his case before unsuccessfully urging Wyman to plead guilty to a felony.

Wyman, a 52-year-old veteran of the U.S. Air Force, filed the complaint in June against San Luis Obispo Defenders, a private law firm that contracts public defender services with the county, as well as Patricia Ashbaugh, head of the firm, and Ronald Crawford, who was his defense attorney.

The complaint accused SLO Defenders of legal malpractice, saying it failed to competently represent Wyman, costing him a total of about 10 months in custody, his current attorney, the Bay Area-based Paula Canny, told The Tribune.

But following a September court filing by SLO Defenders’ counsel challenging the legal grounds underlying Wyman’s claim, Canny on Monday filed a motion to dismiss the case in its entirety.

Canny said Tuesday that she did so because the case would likely have required it go to appellate court and the roughly two-year process would not have been healthy for Wyman.

“I chose to dismiss the case because contentious litigation wasn’t in the best interest of my client,” she said by phone. “The whole process is very stressful.”

But in a prepared statement Tuesday, Ashbaugh said Wyman’s lawsuit “reflected a misunderstanding of the facts and the law regarding (his) case.”

“We are pleased that this matter was expeditiously resolved, and we are proud of the legal services we provide to our clients,” Ashbaugh wrote. “SLO Defenders remains committed to defending clients from the criminal charges brought against them and to linking them to community resources and services that address their needs.”

Ashbaugh noted that the firm plays an important role in the county’s Stepping-Up Initiative to reduce the number of mentally ill persons incarcerated in the County Jail, and is “working closely with its criminal justice partners including the sheriff, probation, and behavioral health departments to develop rehabilitative programs to address the needs of our indigent clients.”

A news release from the firm Tuesday said that it’s also been a leading advocate for the creation of a new Mental Health Diversion Program for SLO County, which began accepting cases last spring, and can result in a dismissal of criminal charges upon successful completion of up to two years of treatment.

Canny has in recent years filed litigation in San Luis Obispo County related to the treatment of the mentally ill in the County Jail as well as families of inmates who have died in the facility.

Holland family attorney Paula Canny speaks on July 27, 2017, about the restraint chair that Atascadero resident Andrew Holland was confined in for 46 hours before his death. David Middlecamp dimiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

One of those complaints was filed on behalf of the widow of Russell Hammer, a 62-year-old inmate from Hanford who was suffering from psychosis when he died at the SLO County Jail in November 2017.

That ongoing lawsuit also accuses SLO Defenders of legal malpractice, as well as a host of other San Luis Obispo County agencies and officials for other alleged damages. That case has a hearing scheduled in December, court records show.

Charged with resisting arrest

Wyman was charged with the felonies after a July 5, 2018, incident in which he allegedly resisted three San Luis Obispo police officers with “force and violence.” He faced up to four years in County Jail.

The lawsuit alleged that when Crawford was appointed to represent Wyman at the latter’s arraignment July 9, the lawyer asked to continue the hearing without seeking a reduction of Wyman’s $150,000 bail so he could get out of custody.

At Wyman’s next hearing more than a month later, Crawford declared a doubt as to Wyman’s mental competence, and the criminal proceedings were suspended as doctors evaluated Wyman, court records show.

The complaint states that neither Crawford or SLO Defenders requested basic discovery from the prosecution, including officer body camera footage that Canny said contradicted the police reports in the case, and that no defense attorney “meaningfully communicated” with him about his case.

While spending his first three months in custody in solitary confinement, Canny previously said, Wyman contracted a bacterial infection in his leg that required hospitalization.

After unsuccessfully trying to talk with SLO Defenders about the case, Wyman’s family ultimately contacted the family of Andrew Holland — a mentally ill Atascadero man who died in SLO Jail in January 2017 — who put them in touch with Canny, she said, and she took over his case.

In May, the DA’s Office agreed to dismiss two charges and reduce one to a misdemeanor in exchange for a no contest plea, and Wyman was subsequently released from County Jail with credit for time served.

‘Settled law’

In his Sept. 4 challenge to the lawsuit, Brian D. Peters, counsel for SLO Defenders, wrote that Wyman has no legal grounds to allege malpractice because he pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor charge, has not sought to have the conviction overturned, and did not file an appeal within the required time frame.

“It is settled law in California that, in order to state a cause of action against a criminal defense attorney for legal malpractice, a plaintiff must allege that he was actually innocent of the charge(s) for which he was convicted,” Peters wrote.

Furthermore, Peters wrote, a plaintiff seeking a legal malpractice judgment must show that he or she was either exonerated of the charges or is in the process of obtaining a post-conviction dismissal of the charges.

“As (Wyman) has not alleged he was actually innocent of the charge for which he was convicted and has not obtained or attempted to obtain post-conviction exoneration, there can be no legal malpractice claim against (SLO Defenders),” the filing reads.

Wyman had been seeking an unspecified amount of compensatory damages and recovery of attorney’s fees.

In response to the case dismissal Monday, a case management conference scheduled for Thursday in San Luis Obispo Superior Court has been canceled, records show.

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Matt Fountain is The San Luis Obispo Tribune’s courts and investigations reporter. A San Diego native, Fountain graduated from Cal Poly’s journalism department in 2009 and cut his teeth at the San Luis Obispo New Times before joining The Tribune as a crime and breaking news reporter in 2014.