United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
K. KALLON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
2001, the Plaintiffs, a class of pretrial detainees confined
in the Morgan County Jail (“the Jail”), sued
Morgan County and a number of county, state, and Jail
officials, alleging inhumane treatment and conditions of
confinement. The parties settled their dispute and agreed to
a consent decree requiring the Defendants to make a number of
reforms. Presently before the court is the Defendants'
motion to terminate the consent decree, doc. 173,
pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act
(“PLRA”), 18 U.S.C. § 3626.
PLRA, which Congress passed in 1996, “altered the
landscape of prison reform litigation.” Cason v.
Seckinger, 231 F.3d 777, 779 (11th Cir. 2000). Relevant
here, the PLRA “limits a court's authority to
continue to enforce previously entered prospective relief in
prison litigation reform cases.” Id. at 780. A
party may seek to terminate a consent decree after a certain
timespan has elapsed. Id. (citing 18 U.S.C.
§§ 3626(b)(1)(A), 3626(b)(2)). The court must grant
the motion unless it “determines that the relief
remains necessary to ‘correct a current and ongoing
violation of [federal rights].'” Id. at
780 (quoting 18 U.S.C. § 3626(b)(3)). The party opposing
the termination of prospective relief has the burden of
proving a current and ongoing constitutional violation.
Id. at 782-83. And, “[e]ven where there is a
current and ongoing violation, prospective relief must be
terminated unless the district court makes written findings
on the record that the relief extends no further than
necessary to correct the violation, that the relief is
narrowly drawn, and that the relief is the least intrusive
means to correct the violation, ” the so-called
need-narrowness-intrusiveness requirements. Id.
(citing 18 U.S.C. § 3626(b)(3)).
their motion, which is fully briefed, docs. 199, 210, 211,
212-1, and ripe for review, the Defendants argue that the
consent decree's remaining provisions must be terminated
because there are no current and ongoing violations at the
Jail, or alternatively, that these provisions do not satisfy
the need-narrowness-intrusiveness requirements. Although the
Plaintiffs oppose the motion, they generally agree with the
Defendants that the majority of the consent decree's
terms are subject to termination. See docs. 168,
169, 186, 189, 198, 200. Instead, the Plaintiffs challenge
only the termination of Paragraphs 16 and 18,  arguing that the
Jail's current conditions related to mental health
treatment warrant these provisions' extension. While the
court is concerned by the evidence of inadequate mental
health care at the Jail, the Plaintiffs have failed to
satisfy their burden of showing that the Defendants were
deliberately indifferent to the risks of this inadequate
care. Therefore, the court has no basis to find that the
Defendants' conduct constitutes a current and ongoing
violation, and, accordingly, the motion to terminate is due
to be granted.
Supreme Court has developed a two-part analysis governing
challenges to the constitutionality of conditions of
confinement, consisting of an “objective test”
and a “subjective test.” Chandler v.
Crosby, 379 F.3d 1288-89 (11th Cir. 2004). Basically,
the court must ascertain whether a current constitutional
violation has caused or threatens to cause serious harm to a
detainee with serious medical needs (the objective test), and
establish a defendant's deliberate indifference (the
subjective test) to find a current and ongoing violation. The
court will begin its analysis by determining what timeframe
to use in assessing the currentness of the alleged
violations, before turning to the objective test and
subjective test components. Finally, the court will address
the need-narrowness-intrusiveness requirements.
What is the Proper Timeframe for Determining the Currentness
of the Alleged Violations
parties disagree on the time period the court should consider
in ascertaining whether current and ongoing violations exist
at the Jail. Basically, the Plaintiffs contend that the
proper period is the date when the Defendants filed their
motion to terminate, June 27, 2017, and the Defendants
counter that it is the date of the evidentiary hearing,
October 4, 2017.
current and ongoing violation “is a violation that
exists at the time the district court conducts the §
3626(b)(3) inquiry” into whether it should terminate
the prospective relief, “not a potential future
violation.” Cason, 231 F.3d at 784.
Cason, however, offers no additional guidance.
Moreover, the parties have not cited, and the court has not
found, any Eleventh Circuit decision squarely addressing the
question of precisely when the § 3626(b)(3) inquiry
occurs. The court notes, however, that the Fifth Circuit, in
interpreting Cason, has held that “a court
must look at the conditions in the jail at the time
termination is sought, not at conditions that existed in
the past or at conditions that may possibly occur in the
future[.]” Castillo v. Cameron Cty., Tex., 238
F.3d 339, 353 (5th Cir. 2001) (emphasis added). The court
finds the Fifth Circuit's interpretation persuasive.
the Plaintiffs to present evidence on Jail conditions as of
the date of the evidentiary hearing, as the Defendants
propose, would pose an immense, and possibly insurmountable,
logistical burden. For example, no expert witness is capable
of reasonably reviewing the evidence she needs to form her
opinions regarding a jail's conditions as of the very day
she is to testify. In fact, if the Defendants'
proposition is taken to its logical extreme, even detainees
would be unable to testify as to the conditions of their
confinement, because their presence at the evidentiary
hearing would necessarily mean that they lack personal
knowledge of the jail's conditions at the time of the
hearing. Put simply, the Defendants' interpretation would
frustrate the very purpose of the evidentiary hearing that
Cason mandates. Accordingly, the court will consider
the Jail's conditions on the date the Defendants filed
the motion to terminate to determine whether a current and
ongoing violation exists.
Whether the Plaintiffs Satisfy the Objective Test
objective test of the inquiry of whether a current and
ongoing violation exists requires an initial showing that
detainees have “serious medical needs.”
Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104 (1976).
“[A] serious medical need is one that has been
diagnosed by a physician as mandating treatment or one that
is so obvious that even a lay person would easily recognize
the necessity for a doctor's attention.” Hill
v. Dekalb Reg'l Youth Det. Ctr., 40 F.3d 1176, 1187
(11th Cir. 1994) (citations and internal quotation marks
omitted), overruled in part on other grounds by Hope v.
Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730 (2002). This issue is not in
contention, as the Defendants do not dispute that serious
mental illnesses are serious medical needs, see
docs. 199, 211, and the Plaintiffs' expert witness, Dr.
Kelly Coffman, testified that many Plaintiffs have serious
mental illnesses. Therefore, the Plaintiffs have satisfied
their burden of showing a serious medical need.
Plaintiffs must next show under the objective test that a
detainee with a serious medical need has suffered serious
harm or is “incarcerated under conditions posing a
substantial risk of serious harm.” Farmer v.
Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994). This inquiry requires
the court to ascertain whether inadequacies in the Jail's
provision of mental health care either seriously harmed the
Plaintiffs or created a substantial risk of serious harm to
the Plaintiffs. The Plaintiffs concede the first point
through Dr. Coffman's testimony that no evidence shows
that any Plaintiff suffered serious harm as a result of the
Defendants' conduct. This concession is not fatal to the
showing of a substantial risk of serious harm, however,
because the law recognizes that “a remedy for unsafe
conditions need not await a tragic event.” Helling
v. McKinney, 509 U.S. 25, 33 (1993). Rather, the
Constitution “protects against future harms to
inmates” even when the harm “might not affect all
of those exposed” to a risk, and even when the harm
might not manifest immediately. Id. Thus, conditions
posing an unreasonable risk of serious damage to
detainees' future health can satisfy the objective test.
Id. at 35.
other words, the Plaintiffs need to show only “that
they have been subjected to the harmful policies and
practices at issue, not (necessarily) that they have already
been harmed by these policies and practices.” Dunn
v. Dunn, 219 F.Supp.3d 1100, 1123 (M.D. Ala. 2016).
Moreover, multiple policies or practices that combine to
deprive a detainee of a “single, identifiable human
need, ” such as mental health care, can constitute a
substantial risk of serious harm. Gates v. Cook, 376
F.3d 323, 333 (5th Cir. 2004) (citing Wilson v.
Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 304 (1991)); see Hamm v.
DeKalb Cty., 774 F.2d 1567, 1575-76 (11th Cir. 1985)
(recognizing “totality of conditions” approach in
prison conditions cases). More specifically, here, the
Plaintiffs contend that four current and ongoing practices,
taken together, create a substantial risk of serious
harm. The court addresses each alleged practice
Insufficient Psychiatric Staffing
Coffman testified that, although the Jail has 125 mental
health patients, the Jail's psychiatrist only visited an
average of slightly more than five hours each month from June
to September 2017, and spent an average of six minutes with
each patient he examined during his visit. See doc.
202-28. The Plaintiffs contend that this meant that only
twenty-seven patients received psychiatric treatment each
month on average, resulting in extensive wait times and a one
to six month lag between a detainee placing a sick call and
receiving treatment. See id. In her testimony at the
hearing, Dr. Coffman described the Jail's psychiatric
staffing as wholly inadequate, testifying that adequate care
would entail that the psychiatrist see a minimum of forty
detainees each month based on the Jail's current mental
health caseload. Dr. Coffman added that the length of the
wait and the resulting uncertainty of when a detainee would
receive treatment could exacerbate feelings of hopelessness
and helplessness, potentially leading to severe consequences
such as harm to self or others. Additionally, because
detainees are unable to receive psychiatric medication before
seeing a psychiatrist, they are at risk of the recurrence of
mental health symptoms previously treated by their
medication, the exacerbation of such symptoms, and the
withdrawal symptoms of their medications, including the
potentially fatal ones from benzodiazepines. Based on her
demeanor, knowledge, and expertise, the court finds Dr.
Coffman credible and accepts her testimony. See Anderson
v. City of Bessemer City, N.C. , 470 U.S. 564, 575 (U.S.
1985) (“When findings are based on determinations
regarding the credibility of witnesses, Rule 52(a) demands
even greater deference ...