Family of Kamyar Samimi Suing GEO Group, Doctor for Wrongful Death

Neda Samimi-Gomez is suing GEO Group on her father's behalf.
Neda Samimi-Gomez is suing GEO Group on her father's behalf. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
Today, November 12, the family of Kamyar Samimi, a 64-year-old Iranian man who died shortly after being detained at the immigrant detention facility in Aurora, is filing a lawsuit together with the ACLU of Colorado against the private prison company that runs the facility and the head doctor there at the time Samimi died.

The wrongful-death lawsuit alleges that the doctor, Jeffrey Peterson, and GEO Group, whose staff were responsible for ensuring adequate medical care for the facility's detainees, failed Samimi in that regard, ultimately leading to his death.

"He was fine when he was put into immigration detention, and two weeks later, he was dead," says Mark Silverstein, legal director at the ACLU of Colorado.

The legal complaint also includes claims based on the Rehabilitation Act, which prevents programs conducted by federal agencies from discriminating against people with disabilities. The family's lawyers argue that his disability was opioid use disorder, as he had a longstanding daily dependence on methadone going back to 1991. The lawsuit criticizes medical staff at the facility for cutting Samimi off from methadone cold turkey, which the complaint alleges contributed to his demise.

"What happened to my family is horrible, and I never want that to happen to anyone else," Neda Samimi-Gomez, Samimi's 26-year-old daughter and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, told Westword for a previous story.

The lawsuit isn't seeking a specific amount of damages, leaving that decision to a jury. It will be some months before the defendants in this case respond to the allegations in court.

The legal complaint is partially based on ICE's own investigation into Samimi's death.

An internal Immigration and Customs Enforcement review completed in May 2018 found that medical staff at the GEO facility in Aurora failed to intervene as Samimi deteriorated from opioid withdrawal. In more than a dozen instances, staff at the facility failed to comply with ICE's medical standards, it found.

Peterson was the lone full-time physician at the facility when Samimi, a green card holder and resident of the U.S. since 1976, was picked up at his home in Thornton by ICE on November 17, 2017, based on a 2005 guilty plea to cocaine possession.

Samimi informed staff of his methadone dependence when he arrived at the center. However, during the two weeks that he was in custody, Peterson did not perform a physical exam on him.

As Samimi quickly began to exhibit what investigators later recognized as symptoms of opioid withdrawal, Peterson thought Samimi was faking it "to get what he wanted" — i.e., methadone, according to the ICE review. Most of the facility's nurses who interacted with Samimi shared Peterson's sentiments. "The majority of nurses interviewed stated they believed Samimi was malingering and seeking drugs throughout his stay and did not see an urgent need to notify the physician of his worsening condition," the ICE report notes.

The nurses who were dealing with the increasingly ill Samimi also mistakenly used an alcohol withdrawal assessment and treatment sheet instead of the Clinical Opiate Withdrawal Scale, which is standard practice for dealing with an opioid user.

On November 26, 2017, Samimi scored particularly high on the incorrectly applied alcohol withdrawal scale. But the nurse who examined him using the scale didn't notify Peterson. Later that night, Samimi slid out of his wheelchair onto the floor.

Two days later, Samimi collapsed in a hallway. A nurse wrote in his file, "No matter his actions, stronger meds unavailable." That day, Samimi tried to hang himself with his bedsheets.

After Samimi was placed on suicide watch, a psychiatrist spoke with him and recommended that medical staff monitor him for ten days using the opiate withdrawal scale. But once again, nurses did not utilize this system.

In the early-morning hours of December 1, 2017, facility staff observed Samimi talking to himself, attempting to drink water from his toilet, falling and rolling on the ground. Later, Samimi fell out of his wheelchair and "did not attempt to break his fall," according to the report.

Security staff told the nurse about what they had witnessed. The nurse said Peterson was aware; however, emergency services were never utilized. A security supervisor later told ICE investigators "that in retrospect, he wished he had called 911 himself but did not because he was told Dr. [redacted] was fully informed. He commented he has 'had battles with Dr. [redacted] in the past' and has lost; consequently, he knows his 'boundaries.'"

The facility's medical staff also only administered half the medication that doctors had prescribed Samimi and only took his vital signs every twelve hours as opposed to the recommended eight.

On the evening of December 1, "Samimi screamed for nurses and complained of abdominal pain," and facility staff observed him spitting up blood. A nurse checked on him 75 minutes later. Samimi suffered throughout that night, vomiting and complaining of abdominal pain and an inability to breathe.

The next morning, Samimi still had the same symptoms. A security staffer reported Samimi's conditions to nursing staff but was ignored.

At 11 a.m., Samimi fell out of his wheelchair and vomited blood. The on-call nurse did not immediately call 911 because "he did not deem the situation an emergency." Instead, the nurse called Peterson, who was not at the facility but is required to be on call 24/7. The nurse left multiple messages on Peterson's house and cell phones, which Peterson later said he didn't receive.

It took a suggestion from one of the security guards for staff to call 911. EMTs entered the Aurora facility and found Samimi unresponsive and without a pulse. Samimi was transported to a nearby hospital and was administered CPR and a defribillator, but never woke up.

Hospital staff noted black vomit on Samimi's face and in his airway, which could have been a sign of gastrointestinal bleeding.

The autopsy of Samimi failed to determine his exact cause of death, but did note emphysema and gastrointestinal bleeding as contributing factors. The coroner also added that he "could not rule out methadone withdrawal as the cause of death, but noted that deaths due to methadone withdrawal are rare."

In direct contrast to the internal ICE review, the detention facility found that its staffers had adequately handled Samimi in two reviews it conducted following his death.

"The resulting report stated that both medical and security staff acted properly and in accordance with policy and procedures on December 2, 2017," the ICE investigation noted of the facility reports.

ICE declined to comment for this story. A GEO Group spokesperson emailed Westword the following statement regarding the lawsuit: "GEO strongly rejects these allegations. The Processing Centers we manage on behalf of ICE are top-rated by independent accreditation entities, including the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, and provide high-quality residential care. We are committed to providing a safe and secure environment for everyone in our care.”

The ACLU of Colorado and the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center have sued ICE over Freedom of Information Act requests related to documents associated with Samimi's death.

Since Samimi died, the Aurora ICE facility has expanded its capacity significantly by opening up an annex facility. But there's still just one full-time physician overseeing approximately 1,400 detainees. Peterson is now the medical director at the Arapahoe County Jail.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.