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Strip-Searched Jail Arrestees May be Certified as Class for Liability

by Matthew T. Clarke

On August 24, 2006, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that a federal district court in New York erred when it refused to certify non-felony arrestees who were strip searched pursuant to a blanket policy at New York's Nassau County Corrections Center (NCCC) as a class for liability purposes after it found insufficient common interest predominance to certify them as a class for the claims as a whole.

The plaintiffs in this case are people who were arrested for misdemeanor charges unrelated to weapons or drugs and thereafter strip searched at NCCC without any individualized suspicion. In 1999, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York held that NCCC's blanket strip search policy was an unconstitutional violation of the Fourth Amendment.
Shortly thereafter, plaintiffs filed three separate lawsuits involving different groups of plaintiffs, with each suit alleging that the plaintiffs had been unconstitutionally strip searched. In 2000, plaintiffs moved the district court to consolidate the three actions and certify a class of all persons arrested for or charged with non-felony offenses who had been admitted to NCCC and strip searched without individualized suspicion.

The district court granted consolidation but denied class certification due to a lack of common issue predominance. In doing so, the district court expressed concern that some subordinate John and Jane Does might escape liability in some cases because they had individualized suspicion regarding certain suspects, and that this might prevent a finding of liability against all defendants. The court also noted that it might be possible to certify a class for liability only under Rule 23(c)(4)(A), Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, but declined to do so on its own and questioned the propriety of doing so.

Plaintiffs asserted that they no longer sought judgment against subordinate John and Jane Does and moved for reconsideration of class certification pursuant to Rule 23(c)(4)(A). The district court agreed that individualized liability determinations for defendants was no longer necessary and that this militated in favor for partial class certification on the issue of liability, but nonetheless denied the motion and two later class certification motions using a slightly different class definition. The defendants agreed to settle for $350,000. Plaintiffs reserved the right to appeal and filed an appeal on the issue of class certification.

The Second Circuit found that the district court erred when it held a court may not use Rule 23(c)(4)(A) to certify a class after it finds that the action as a whole does not satisfy the common issue predominance requirements of Rule 23(b)(3). The district court also erred when it concluded that defendants' concession that it might be appropriate to certify whether the NCCC strip search policy was unconstitutional at the time of the searches served to eliminate common liability issues from the Rule 23(b)(3) predominance analysis. This led the district court to erroneously conclude that individualized liability issues predominated over common ones. Thus, the district court erred when it failed to certify a class on the issue of liability.

Recognizing that there was a circuit split on the issue, the Second Circuit rejected the Fifth Circuit's "strict application" of Rule 23(b)(3)'s predominance requirement and agreed with the Ninth Circuit's "plain language" interpretation when it returned this case to the district court with instructions to certify a class as to liability and consider certifying a class as to damages as well. See: In re Nassau County Strip Search Cases, 461 F.3d 219 (2nd Cir. 2006)

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Related legal case

In re Nassau County Strip Search Cases