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1979 Jail Consent Decree Largely Gutted by PLRA; Reversed on Appeal

On October 7, 2008, a federal court in New York terminated large portions of a sweeping 1979 consent decree related to conditions at 14 New York City jails. However, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision in November 2009, with instructions to afford the plaintiffs an opportunity to conduct discovery to determine whether there were continuing constitutional violations.

In 1979, a class of pretrial detainees entered into consent decrees with government officials to resolve litigation over conditions in New York City jails. See, e.g., Benjamin v. Horn, 2008 WL 2462027.

In 2000 the defendants moved to terminate the environmental health provisions of the consent decrees. The motion was granted in part by Benjamin v. Fraser, 161 F.Supp.2d 151 (S.D. NY 2001) and Benjamin v. Fraser, 2001 WL 282705 (S.D. NY 2001). However, an “Environmental Order, issued April 26, 2001, provided prospective relief for the constitutional violations that remained ongoing.”

The defendants then moved, pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), to terminate the remaining provisions of the Environmental Order, which governed sanitation and cleaning (Paragraphs 11 and 19); food storage containers (Paragraph 13); and temperature and temperature monitoring at the jails (Paragraph 14).

The district court followed “the weight of authority among other circuits,” and held that the “Plaintiffs [must] shoulder the burden of proving that the relevant provisions of the Environmental Order pass the need-narrowness-intrusiveness test” required by the PLRA, 18 U.S.C. § 3626 (a)(1)(A)(1996). See also: Benjamin v. Fraser, 343 F.3d 35 (2d Cir. 2003). Under this test, the plaintiffs were required to “show the deprivation of a basic human need … and … ‘actual or imminent harm.’”

Applying this standard, the district court terminated the sanitation provisions of paragraphs 11 and 19 because while some dirty conditions were documented, “Plaintiffs have not carried their burden of showing an ongoing violation of their constitutional rights,” and failed to prove that current conditions “will cause them imminent and substantial harm.”

With respect to shower replacements which had been ordered but not yet completed, the court instructed the defendants to “submit a complete list of shower replacement schedules … by December 1, 2008, with completion dates for the work not extending beyond December 1, 2009.”

The court also terminated the temperature provisions of paragraph 14, “because Plaintiffs have failed to show an ongoing constitutional violation with respect to temperatures inside the jails.” However, the termination did “not affect this Court’s recent opinion and order concerning high temperatures and heat-sensitive detainees.”The district court did not address the food storage container provisions of paragraph 13, because it was the subject of a separate court order.

Finally, the district court rejected the plaintiffs’ request for “prospective relief relating to the control of vermin, such as cockroaches, ants, bugs, drain flies and mice,” concluding “that detainees’ constitutional rights are not being violated and the relief would not be narrowly drawn nor the least obtrusive.”

The plaintiffs and their experts were granted leave to inspect the jails again within 6 months of the order. “At that time,” the court wrote, “if conditions encompassed by the April 26, 2001 Environmental Order are shown again to exist, this Court will reinstate any provision that meets the need-narrowness-intrusiveness test.”

The parties agreed that the overcrowding and food preparation provisions in the consent decree must be lifted because they could no longer stand in the face of the PLRA and post-1979 U.S. Supreme Court rulings. In 2001, the court had terminated provisions in the consent decree related to prisoner correspondence, law libraries and vermin control. Ventilation, lighting and fire safety provisions remain in effect.

Defense attorney Michael A. Cardozo praised the decision as recognizing “the need, whenever the facts allow, to eliminate consent decrees” and “to return the management of city agencies back to the commissioners.”

The Legal Aid Society and longtime PLN contributor John Boston have represented the plaintiff class since 1979. Class counsel Dale A. Wilker expressed disappointment with the decision, noting, “we presented the court with substantial evidence of ongoing violations in New York City jails and believe the need for strong oversight remains.” See: Benjamin v. Horn, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 75-cv-03073-HB; 2008 WL 4500689.

In a subsequent ruling on October 26, 2009, the district court affirmed the termination of the provision related to temperature monitoring (“Heat Orders”); however, the court specified that the defendants must submit a report before November 1, 2010 as to their “compliance with all aspects of the newly clarified Heat Orders during the 2010 Heat Season.”

On November 12, 2009, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals vacated and remanded the district court’s October 2008 order terminating various parts of the 1979 consent decree. The appellate court held that “Prospective relief awarded pursuant to the PLRA may not be terminated ‘if the court makes written findings based on the record’ that such relief ‘remains necessary to correct a current and ongoing violation’ of federal rights.”

In this case, the district court “denied Appellants’ requests for more extensive discovery, and limited the time period for discovery to approximately one month. The district court also declined to conduct an evidentiary hearing.” Thus, the court did not allow the plaintiffs a meaningful opportunity to show current and ongoing constitutional violations that would have precluded termination of the challenged provisions of the consent decree.

The Court of Appeals therefore vacated the district court’s ruling and remanded the case for further proceedings, during which the lower court “need do no more than provide Appellants a reasonable opportunity to take discovery of current conditions, present evidence, and challenge Appellees’ internal reports.” See: Benjamin v. Horn, 2009 WL 3765920 (2d Cir. N.Y 2009).

Additional source: New York Law Journal

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Related legal case

Benjamin v. Horn

353 Fed.Appx. 473, 2009 WL 3765920 (C.A.2)

United States Court of Appeals,
Second Circuit.
James BENJAMIN, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants,
Martin HORN, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

No. 08-5421-cv.
Nov. 12, 2009.

*473 UPON DUE CONSIDERATION, it is hereby ORDERED, ADJUDGED, AND *474 DECREED that the judgment of the district court be VACATED, and the case REMANDED to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
Steven Banks (John Boston, Dale A. Wilker, & Veronica Vela, on the brief), The Legal Aid Society, New York, NY, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

Julie Steiner, Assistant Corporation Counsel (Barry Schwartz, on the brief), on behalf of Michael A. Cardozo, Corporation Counsel of the City of New York, for Defendants-Appellees.


**1 Appellants, a class of pre-trial detainees at New York City jails, appeal the October 6, 2008, 2008 WL 4500689, decision of the district court (Baer, J. ), terminating certain provisions of its April 26, 2001 order directing defendants the City of New York (the ?City?) and the Department of Corrections (?DOC?) to remedy federal law violations arising from environmental conditions in City jails. Appellants claim the district court (1) misinterpreted the requirement of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 18 U.S.C. § 3626(b)(3), that prospective relief be supported by a showing of a ?current and ongoing? violation of federal law; (2) erred in weighing the evidence as to whether a violation existed; (3) wrongly concluded that they failed to make a required showing of harm; and (4) afforded them insufficient opportunity to present evidence. Because we find that Appellants were not afforded a sufficient opportunity to present evidence demonstrating continuing violations of their constitutional rights, we address only their fourth claim, and vacate the district court's decision and remand on that basis. We assume the parties' familiarity with the facts and the record of prior proceedings, which we reference only as necessary to explain our ruling.

Prospective relief awarded pursuant to the PLRA may not be terminated ?if the court makes written findings based on the record? that such relief ?remains necessary to correct a current and ongoing violation? of federal rights. 18 U.S.C. § 3626(b)(3). We have previously explained that ?[e]vidence presented at a prior time ... [does] not show a violation that is ?current and ongoing.? ? See Benjamin v. Jacobson, 172 F.3d 144, 166 (2d Cir.1999). Rather, the court must consider ?conditions as of the time termination is sought.? Id. This does not confine a court's review to a single day, nor was the district court of that view in this case. In reaching its challenged decision, the court considered evidence gathered over eleven months, notably (1) a report covering January-April 2008 and prepared by the Office of Compliance Consultants (?OCC?), a monitoring agency created by court order in this case in 1982; (2) a report of May 2007 observations prepared by Eugene Pepper, a sanitarian retained by OCC; and (3) voluminous DOC inspection records from July 2007 through March 2008. The DOC records, in particular, were produced in response to the court's order granting limited discovery. However, the court denied Appellants' requests for more extensive discovery, and limited the time period for discovery to approximately one month. The district court also declined to conduct an evidentiary hearing.

We review the district court's conduct of discovery and its denial of an evidentiary hearing for abuse of discretion. See In re Agent Orange Prod. Liab. Litig., 517 F.3d 76, 103 (2d Cir.2008) (?A district court has wide latitude to determine the scope of *475 discovery, and [we] ordinarily defer to the discretion of district courts regarding discovery matters.?) (internal quotation marks omitted); Zappia Middle East Constr. Co. Ltd. v. Emirate of Abu Dhabi, 215 F.3d 247, 253 (2d Cir.2000) (?The district court's denial of an evidentiary hearing is subject to an abuse of discretion standard of review.?). ?A district court has abused its discretion if it [has] based its ruling on an erroneous view of the law or on a clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence or rendered a decision that cannot be located within the range of permissible decisions.? Sims v. Blot, 534 F.3d 117, 132 (2d Cir.2008).

**2 In Benjamin v. Jacobson, we held that, in response to a defendant's PLRA-based motion to terminate prospective relief, ?the district court must allow the plaintiffs an opportunity to show current and ongoing violations of their federal rights.? 172 F.3d at 166. We reversed where, in vacating the original consent decrees in that case, the district court had ?denied plaintiffs' request for an opportunity to present evidence.? Id. at 152. Here, it is true, the district court considered a voluminous record developed over the period of nearly a year. Yet the court appears to have discounted much of the evidence produced by OCC and the persons retained by it-including evidence that directly conflicted with the Appellees' internal reports-on the grounds that the OCC reports were both older and less frequent than the internal reports of Appellees. At the same time, the limited time frame allotted for discovery made it difficult for these outside observers to conduct additional inspections, potentially providing evidence with which Appellants could challenge Appellees' reports. When plaintiffs challenging the self-reporting of detention facilities are necessarily forced by a court's discovery order to rely on outside reports regarded by the court as too infrequent or stale to overcome defendants' regular internal reporting, and are also denied an evidentiary hearing during which they might have discredited defendants' contrary evidence, they are not afforded a meaningful ?opportunity? to show continuing violations of their rights, as the law requires. See id. at 166; see also In re Agent Orange, 517 F.3d at 103 (requiring a ?meaningful opportunity to establish the facts?). Accordingly, the district court's order is vacated.

We are mindful that the conduct of discovery remains within the sound discretion of the district courts, and of the concern, evident in the record below, that an effort by a prison to terminate prospective relief should not necessitate months or years of discovery when the conditions at issue are the subject of ongoing monitoring. On remand, the district court need do no more than provide Appellants a reasonable opportunity to take discovery of current conditions, present evidence, and challenge Appellees' internal reports. And the weighing of any evidence provided by Appellants after such an opportunity remains the task of the district court judge. See Phoenix Global Ventures LLC v. Phoenix Hotel Assocs., Ltd., 422 F.3d 72, 76 (2d Cir.2005) (?[C]lear error review mandates that we defer to the district court's factual findings, particularly those involving credibility determinations.?).

For the foregoing reasons, the judgment of the district court is hereby VACATED and the case REMANDED to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.