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Braggs v. Dunn

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

January 2, 2019

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 PLAINTIFFS' MOTION TO UNSEAL QUARTERLY STAFFING REPORTS

          MYRON H. THOMPSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         In June 2017, this court found that the Alabama prison system's “persistent and severe shortages of mental-health staff and correctional staff” are a significant factor causing the State to provide constitutionally inadequate mental-health care to prisoners. See Braggs v. Dunn, 257 F.Supp.3d 1171, 1267-68 (M.D. Ala. 2017) (Thompson, J.). As part of the remedy, the court ordered the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) to file under seal quarterly mental-health and correctional staffing reports. See Phase 2A Understaffing Remedial Order (doc. no. 1657) at 7. The plaintiffs moved to unseal these reports and the defendants agreed, except as to the correctional staffing statistics broken down by facility. The court held an evidentiary hearing on the sole disputed issue of whether to unseal the facility-specific correctional staffing figures. After balancing the public's interest in accessing these figures against ADOC's interest in keeping them confidential, the court will now order that past and future quarterly staffing reports be disclosed in their entirety, albeit with the facility-specific correctional data being unsealed five months after the last day of each quarter.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The plaintiffs in this class-action lawsuit include a group of mentally-ill prisoners in the custody of ADOC. The defendants are the ADOC Commissioner and Associate Commissioner of Health Services, 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 violation. Id. at 1267-68. Additionally, it found that “persistent and severe shortages of mental-health staff and correctional staff” constitute an “overarching issue[] that permeate[s] each of the ... contributing factors of inadequate mental-health care.” Id. at 1268.

         On February 20, 2018, the court issued a remedial opinion on understaffing, see Braggs v. Dunn, 2018 WL 985759, at *1 (M.D. Ala. Feb. 20, 2018) (Thompson, J.), along with a remedial order, see Understaffing Remedial Order (doc. no. 1657). The remedial order required the defendants to “submit to the court under seal a ‘Correctional Staffing Report' and ‘Mental Health Staffing Report' on a quarterly basis, that is, March 1, June 1, September 1, and December 1 of each year.” Id. at 7. The defendants filed such reports under seal in March, June, and September.

         On September 17, 2018, the plaintiffs moved to unseal past and future quarterly staffing reports. At a hearing on the motion on September 18, the defendants agreed that the mental-health staffing figures could be unsealed. The defendants also acknowledged that, until June 2017, when the court issued its liability opinion, ADOC had published correctional staffing figures broken down by facility every month on its website. Defense counsel represented that the decision to stop publishing the correctional staff figures was made for three reasons: (1) concern that the reported figures were inaccurate; (2) security concerns about disclosing the number of staff posted at different facilities, especially given that the staffing numbers were lower than in the past; and (3) the number of “authorized” positions in the reports was no longer relevant. See Order Regarding Motion to Unseal (doc. no. 2075) at 1-2.

         On September 20, 2018, the defendants agreed to make public the total correctional staffing levels across ADOC, but not to break down those figures by facility. See Notice of Filing (doc. no. 2066) at 1-2. The defendants cited “security and other concerns related to unsealing the facility-specific information related to correctional staffing levels.” Id. at 1.

         Accordingly, the only remaining disputed issue from the plaintiffs' motion to unseal is whether to unseal the facility-specific correctional staffing numbers. The court held an evidentiary hearing on this issue on October 23 and 24, 2018, and subsequently heard oral argument to clarify the parties' positions.[1]

         II. DISCUSSION

         The public has a common-law right to inspect and copy judicial records and documents. See Nixon v. Warner Commc'ns, Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 597 (1978); see also Newman v. Graddick, 696 F.2d 796, 802-04 (11th Cir. 1983) (applying the common-law right to access judicial records in a class action brought by Alabama prisoners). The “test for whether a judicial record can be withheld from the public is a balancing test that weighs the competing interests of the parties to determine whether there is good cause to deny the public the right to access the document." F.T.C. v. AbbVie Prods., LLC, 713 F.3d 54, 62 (11th Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted). This balancing test weighs "the public interest in accessing court documents against a party's interest in keeping the information confidential." Romero v. Drummond Co., 480 F.3d 1234, 1246 (11th Cir. 2007). On the public's side of the scale is the “presumption ... in favor of public access to judicial records.” Nixon, 435 U.S. at 602.[2]

         Here, to support their motion to unseal, the plaintiffs invoke the public's interest in ensuring both the constitutionality of Alabama's prisons and the “judicious stewardship of taxpayer dollars.” Plaintiffs' Pretrial Brief (doc. no. 2100) at 4-6. On the other side of the scale, weighing against unsealing, the defendants assert an interest in “maintaining the safety and security of” ADOC facilities. Defendants' Pretrial Brief (doc. no. 2102) at 14.

         Before examining these asserted interests, it is helpful to identify the points of agreement between the parties, and thereby define more precisely the scope of the dispute before the court. First, the parties agree that the contested statistics need not remain sealed permanently. Instead, they disagree on how long the records should remain under seal.[3] While the plaintiffs argued that disclosing the figures in a quarterly report five months after the last day of the period covered in the report would adequately protect the public's access right, the defendants requested that the figures remain under seal for at least 12 months after the last day of the period covered.[4] See October 24, 2018, Rough Transcript at 94, 125.[5]

         Second, neither party disputes that understaffing undermines prison safety.[6] The major contested security issue here is whether and to what extent the disclosure of statistics showing correctional understaffing poses a security danger, not whether understaffing itself causes danger.[7]

         Third and finally, the defendants have already agreed to make public the aggregate numbers of correctional staff employed at all ADOC facilities. Therefore, the balancing test here must focus on the degree to which publishing facility-specific information affects each party's asserted interests as compared to the publication of the aggregate correctional staffing figures for all ADOC facilities, not as compared to a hypothetical situation in which no correctional staffing figures are public.

         In sum, the narrow question before the court is whether the benefit to the public's interest that would result from disclosing--with less than the 12-month delay accepted by the defendants--the facility-specific figures (as opposed to the already-public aggregate figures) outweighs the cost in terms of security that would result from such disclosure. As elaborated below, the court finds that the benefit outweighs the cost if a five-month delay is used to balance the competing interests.

         A. The Public's Interest

         The plaintiffs assert two interests that the public has in accessing the disputed staffing figures. First, they argue, the public has a strong interest in ensuring the constitutionality of Alabama's prisons. Second, the public has a strong interest in the “judicious stewardship of taxpayer dollars.” Plaintiffs' Pretrial Brief (doc. no. 2100) at 6. Courts have recognized similar interests in cases concerning public access to judicial and other government records. For example, in Kelly v. Wengler, the plaintiff prisoners sought to unseal a series of filings related to defendant Corrections Corporation of America (CCA)'s failure to staff the Idaho Correctional Center adequately. 979 F.Supp.2d 1243, 1244 (D. Idaho 2013) (Carter, J.). In granting the plaintiffs' motion to unseal, the court reasoned that “Idaho taxpayers pay CCA to operate one of their prisons. With public money comes a public concern about how that money is spent.” Id. at 1246; see also Newman, 696 F.2d at 801 (“This litigation concerning penal administration in Alabama is of paramount importance to the citizens of that state.”); Storm v. Twitchell, 2014 WL 4926119, at *14 (D. Idaho Sept. 29, 2014) (“Whether conditions at the county jails violate the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution is important ...


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