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Maynor v. Morgan County

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division

August 31, 2018

JOHNY MAYNOR, et al., Plaintiffs,
MORGAN COUNTY, AL, et al., Defendants.



         In 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, [1] pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), 18 U.S.C. § 3626.

         The 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)).

         In 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, [2] 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.

         I. ANALYSIS

         The 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.

         A. What is the Proper Timeframe for Determining the Currentness of the Alleged Violations

         The 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.

         A 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.

         Requiring 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.

         B. Whether the Plaintiffs Satisfy the Objective Test

         The 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.

         The 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.

         In 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.[3] The court addresses each alleged practice in turn.

         1. Insufficient Psychiatric Staffing

         Dr. 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 ...

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