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Court Has No Discretion To Postpone Automatic Stay Under PLRA

The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York held
that it had no discretion under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) to
postpone the automatic stay of the provisions of a previous consent decree.
Orange County Correctional Facility (OCCF) (New York) officials moved
pursuant to the PLRA to have a consent decree dissolved. The consent decree
over conditions at OCCF had been entered 24 years prior. Defendant
prisoners motioned for a postponement of the automatic stay. (Under the
PLRA a stay of the consent decree's provisions is automatically instituted
30 days after a moving party files a motion to dissolve.)

On defendants' motion, the district court held that under the PLRA it had
no discretion to postpone the automatic stay. See: Merriweather v.
Sherwood, 235 F.Supp.2d 339 (SD NY 2002).

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Related legal case

Merriweather v. Sherwood

235 F.Supp.2d 339
United States District Court, S.D. New York.

Charles MERRIWEATHER, et al., Plaintiff,


Wilbur K. SHERWOOD, et al., Defendant.

No. 77 CIV. 3421(CM).
Dec. 19, 2002.
Prison officials moved under Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) to dissolve consent decree concerning prison conditions entered in action some 24 years earlier. Prisoners moved to postpone automatic stay of consent decree's provisions. The District Court, McMahan, J., held that: (1) court lacked discretion to postpone automatic stay once stay came into effect 30 days after motion to dissolve was filed, and (2) even assuming that court had discretion to postpone automatic stay, prisoners did not show they were entitled to postponement.
Motion denied.

McMAHON, District Judge.
On or about November 4, 2002, defendants in this action moved under the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA") to dissolve a consent decree concerning conditions at the Orange County Correctional Facility ("OCCF"). See18 U.S.C. § 3626(b)(2). The decree was entered some twenty-four years ago by The Hon. Edward Weinfeld of this Court. Defendants contend that the consent judgement involves the Court as a permanent judicial overseer of almost every aspect of life at the prison, which is contrary to the purpose of the PLRA.
Under the PLRA, a motion to dissolve a consent decree operates as an automatic stay after thirty days, a date that a court can postpone for up to ninety days if a plaintiff demonstrates good cause. On or about November 15, 2002, plaintiffs moved, by notice of motion, to postpone the automatic stay. Plaintiffs also sought discovery from defendants. The Court received a response to the motion on December 4. The papers were dated December 3. At no time did plaintiffs contact the Court to request expedited treatment. They did not move for a postponement by order to show cause. They did not indicate on the face of the motion papers that they were requesting expedited treatment. They did not seek an order directing an expedited response from defendant. Therefore, chamber staff had no idea that the motion should be heard out of turn; it was simply placed in the queue, where I found it on December 10. It was addressed immediately thereafter.
For the following reasons, I find that the automatic stay went into effect on December 4, thirty days after defendants filed their motion to dissolve the consent decree, and I do not now have the authority to grant plaintiffs' motion for a sixty-day postponement. If I did, I would deny the application.
I. This Court Does Not Have the Authority under the PLRA to Grant Plaintiffs' Motion to Postpone the Automatic Stay

A. The Statute

The PLRA became effective on April 26, 1996. With respect to judgments entered prior to that date, the statute provides that
[A] defendant or intervener shall be entitled to the immediate termination of any prospective relief if the relief was approved or granted in the absence of a finding by the court that the relief is narrowly drawn, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the federal right, and is the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation of the federal right.
18 U.S.C. § 3626(b)(2). Consent decrees constitute "prospective relief" under the PLRA. See Benjamin v. Jacobson, 172 F.3d 144, 156 (2d Cir.1999) ( "[A] consent decree, to the extent that it awards a remedy other than compensatory monetary damages, constitutes prospective relief within the meaning of the Act."). Defendants therefore acted within their rights under the PLRA when they moved on November 4 to terminate the consent decree based on their contentions that (1) the court did not make the necessary findings, and (2) plaintiffs have never proven a violation of any federal right.

*342 Pursuant to the PLRA, "[a]ny motion to modify or terminate prospective relief """ shall operate as a stay during the period beginning on the 30th day after such motion is filed." 18 U.S.C. § 3626(e)(2)(A)(i). The statute allows a court to "postpone the effective date of [such] an automatic stay """ for not more than 60 days for good cause." Id. at § 3626(e)(3). But a court may not postpone an automatic stay "because of general congestion of the court's calendar." Id.
The question is thus whether or not the PLRA affords me the discretion to consider plaintiffs' motion to postpone the automatic stay for sixty days even though the thirty-day period has expired. In order to answer this question, I turn to the language of the statute, as well as controlling judicial interpretations.
First, the statute states that defendants' motion to terminate the consent decree " shall operate as a stay" beginning on the 30th day after they filed the motion-i.e., December 4. 18 U.S.C. § 3626(e)(2)(A)(i) (emphasis added). The provision that allows a court to postpone the automatic stay for 60 days does not contravene this mandatory language. That portion of the statute states that a court "may postpone the effective date of an automatic stay." Id. at § 3626(e)(3) (emphasis added). According to the dictionary, to "postpone" means "[t]o put off until a future time." Webster's II New Riverside University Dictionary 919 (1984). It is implicit in this definition that one can only postpone something that has not yet occurred. If a wedding occurs on September 2, one cannot "postpone" the wedding until September 30 on September 5.
Thus, the only way this court could postpone the automatic stay is if plaintiffs' November 15 motion somehow suspended the stay's effect. A motion to postpone an automatic stay for good cause would then function as a de facto "stay of the stay" pending either a court's decision as to whether good cause exists or the termination of the maximum 90-day period. But the PLRA precludes this interpretation of the statute, because it states that " a court may postpone the effective date of an automatic stay." Id. at § 3626(e)(2)(A)(i) (emphasis added). It does not provide that the making of a motion postpones the stay without need for court action.
The Supreme Court's decision in Miller v. French, 530 U.S. 327, 120 S.Ct. 2246, 147 L.Ed.2d 326 (2000) is consistent with-indeed, bolsters-this interpretation of the statute. In Miller, the Court addressed whether the PLRA precludes courts from exercising their equitable powers to enjoin an automatic stay. The Court explained:
Section 3626(e)(2) states that a motion to terminate prospective relief " shall operate as a stay during " the specified time period from 30 (or 90) days after the filing of the § 3626(b) motion until the court rules on that motion. Thus, not only does the statute employ the mandatory "shall," but it also specifies the points at which the operation of the stay is to begin and end"""" To allow courts to exercise their equitable discretion to prevent the stay from operating during this statutorily prescribed period would be to contradict § 3626(e)(2)'s plain terms. It would mean that the motion to terminate merely may operate as a stay, despite the statute's command that it "shall" have such effect.
Id. at 337-38, 120 S.Ct. 2246.
In sum, I find that the PLRA establishes mandatory points at which the operation of the stay is to begin and end. A court may defer the start date of the stay for sixty days prospectively-i.e., before the 30-day period expires. The expiration of thirty days without a court order extending*343 the stay means that the stay goes into effect. It can only be revoked by a final decision on the underlying motion to terminate.
B. Due Process

In interpreting the PLRA as I do, I am well aware that this Court should construe statutes consistently with the Constitution, if the language will bear any such construction. See N.L.R.B. v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, 440 U.S. 490, 500, 99 S.Ct. 1313, 59 L.Ed.2d 533 (1979). In Miller, the Court left open the question whether the 30 (or 90) day time limit for a court to consider a motion to terminate prospective relief before which an automatic stay will issue "may implicate due process concerns," especially "in a complex case." 530 U.S. at 350, 120 S.Ct. 2246. Those concerns are not present in this case, however, and therefore do not warrant a digression from a plain reading of the statute's language.

The issue of what process an individual is due only arises after a deprivation of certain substantive rights-life, liberty, or property. See Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532, 541, 105 S.Ct. 1487, 84 L.Ed.2d 494 (1985). A legal cause of action constitutes a "species of property protected by the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause." Logan v. Zimmerman Brush Co., 455 U.S. 422, 428, 102 S.Ct. 1148, 71 L.Ed.2d 265 (1982). And the PLRA provides that
Prospective relief shall not terminate if the court makes written findings based on the record that prospective relief remains necessary to correct a current and ongoing violation of the Federal right, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right, and that the prospective relief is narrowly drawn and the least intrusive means to correct the violation.
18 U.S.C. § 3626(b)(3). Thus plaintiffs are due a certain amount of process with respect to the final determination as to whether or not the consent decree must be terminated. They will be afforded that due process as this litigation moves forward. A stay of the consent decree, however, does not violate plaintiffs' due process rights for three reasons.