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Braggs v. Dunn

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

October 29, 2018

EDWARD BRAGGS, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
JEFFERSON S. DUNN, in his official capacity as Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, et al., Defendants.

          PHASE 2A OPINION AND ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' ORAL MOTION FOR CLARIFICATION

          MYRON H. THOMPSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Previously this court found that the State of Alabama provides inadequate mental-health care in its prisons in violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. See Braggs v. Dunn, 257 F.Supp.3d 1171, 1267 (M.D. Ala. 2017) (Thompson, J.). “[S]evere shortages” of mental-health care staff have contributed to these constitutional violations. Id. at 1268. The court issued an Understaffing Remedial Order that established deadlines by which the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) was to increase its mental-health staffing. See Phase 2A Understaffing Remedial Order (doc. no. 1657) at 4. Subsequently, in a motion to require defendants to show cause why they should not be held in contempt, plaintiffs alleged that defendants have failed to meet these deadlines. At the contempt hearing, defendants orally moved for clarification as to what staffing increases the remedial order required.

         In this opinion and order, the court addresses defendants' oral motion for clarification and explains that the deadlines required exactly what the plain language of the Understaffing Remedial Order--and an ADOC contract referred to in it--say they required: defendants were to ensure that all of the mental-health staffing positions listed in the contract's “minimum staffing requirements” were filled by July 1, 2018.

         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiffs in this class-action lawsuit include a group of mentally ill prisoners in the custody of ADOC. Defendants are ADOC Commissioner Jefferson Dunn and ADOC Associate Commissioner of Health Services Ruth Naglich, who are both sued in only their official capacities. In a liability opinion entered on June 27, 2017, this court found that ADOC's mental-health care for prisoners in its custody was, simply put, “horrendously inadequate.” Braggs, 257 F.Supp.3d at 1267. The court laid out seven factors contributing to the Eighth Amendment violations, in addition to an eighth overarching factor that permeates all of the others: the “persistent and severe shortages of mental-health staff and correctional staff.” Id. at 1267-68.

         The court divided the remedial phase along the lines of the eight identified factors contributing to the Eighth Amendment violations, to be addressed one after another. Because of the centrality of understaffing to ADOC's mental-health care failings, it was determined that “this issue must be addressed at the outset and that the earlier the problem is attacked the better.” Braggs v. Dunn, 2018 WL 985759, at *1 (M.D. Ala. Feb. 20, 2018) (Thompson, J.) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         On February 20, 2018, the court issued an Understaffing Remedial Opinion, id., and an accompanying Understaffing Remedial Order, (doc. no. 1657). The order mandated the following deadlines for remedying mental-health staffing:

“(a) By April 1, 2018, ADOC's new mental-health vendor shall begin providing mental-health services.
“(b) By May 1, 2018, ADOC's new mental-health vendor, shall, in addition to continuing to fill those positions in place at the time of this order, fill at least 65 % of the additional mental-health staffing positions provided for in the contract.
“(c) By June 1, 2018, ADOC's new mental-health vendor, shall, in addition to continuing to fill those positions in place at the time of this order, fill at least 75 % of the additional mental-health staffing positions provided for in the contract.
“(d) By July 1, 2018, ADOC's new mental-health vendor, shall fill the mental-health staffing positions consistent with the contract.”

Id. at 4. The July 1, 2018, staffing requirement is to remain in effect until November 2019, when new staffing ratios will be implemented. See Id. at 5.

         On July 2, 2018--after all relevant deadlines in the Understaffing Remedial Order had passed--plaintiffs filed a notice of non-compliance and motion for an order to show cause why defendants should not be held in contempt for violating the order. The court granted the motion and set a hearing, finding that plaintiffs had adequately alleged that defendants had failed to meet the staffing deadlines. On September 19, 2018, the second day of the contempt hearing, defendants orally moved for clarification as to what the order's staffing ...


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