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Class Certified in Lawsuit Challenging Conditions at CCA-operated Indiana Jail, but Case Dismissed on Summary Judgment

by David M. Reutter

An Indiana federal district court certified a class and allowed claims to proceed that challenged unsafe conditions, lack of medical privacy and an alleged incentive scheme that rewarded staff for providing less medical care to prisoners at the Marion County Jail #2 (MCJ) in Indianapolis. Four months later, however, the court granted summary judgment to the defendants, dismissing the class-action suit.

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) operates MCJ under a contract with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office. A lawsuit, filed in 2008, alleged violations of state and federal law in areas such as conditions of confinement, mail policies, availability and handling of grievances, medical care, and privacy of medical information at the jail. The district court dismissed the claims related to grievances for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

In a July 2, 2010 ruling, the court entered an order on the defendants’ affirmative defense that the plaintiffs had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies before filing suit. At a hearing on that matter it became evident there was no reliable system in place for recording the details associated with the filing and resolution of prisoner complaints at MCJ.

As to some of the individual plaintiffs, the court found administrative remedies were not available due to staff failing to provide the necessary forms to prisoners or not answering the grievances they did file. Requiring prisoners to fully exhaust their claims administratively would force them to face the proverbial “run-around.” The district court therefore allowed the case to proceed.

In a December 1, 2010 order on class certification, the court found the case was not moot even though the individual plaintiffs were no longer incarcerated at MCJ. The court held they were entitled to proceed on the “inherently transitory” exception, which is distinct from the “capable of repetition, yet evading review” exception.

Under the “inherently transitory” exception, the plaintiffs must show that “(1) it is uncertain that a claim will remain live for any individual who could be named as a plaintiff long enough for a court to certify the class; and (2) there will be a constant class of persons suffering the deprivation complained of in the complaint.”

“The crux of the ‘inherently transitory’ exception is the uncertainty about the length of time a claim will remain alive,” the district court wrote. When making that determination, courts recognize “the length of incarceration in a county jail generally cannot be determined at the outset and is subject to a number of unpredictable factors, thereby making it inherently transitory.”

The district court found the plaintiffs met the test to proceed as a class for declaratory and injunctive relief. However, the court dismissed the individual plaintiffs’ claims because they were no longer incarcerated at MCJ. A class defined as “[a]ny and all persons currently, or who will be in the future, confined to the Jail #2 facility” was certified by the district court.

There were, nonetheless, claims that could not proceed as they were not typical of the class. The court therefore dismissed the medical care, personal and legal mail, and record claims. The record claim concerned denial of requested records under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). The district court also dismissed a reporting claim, which alleged MCJ staff had failed to report medical errors “as required by Indiana law.” The court found that each of those claims “by their nature require individual fact-finding,” and thus were not typical to the class.

The district court allowed three class claims to proceed. The Unsafe Conditions Count alleged “the presence of mold and insect infestations, inadequate security staffing, and broken heating and air conditioning systems” in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Privacy Count alleged violations of HIPAA’s medical privacy provisions because two MCJ prisoners were in the same room at the same time when they were questioned about their medical history. Finally, the Incentives Count alleged “that CCA paid its administrators financial incentives to encourage them to treat fewer medical patients, decline to report errors, and generally report more favorable conditions than were in fact present” at the jail. See: Kress v. CCA of Tennessee, 272 F.R.D. 222 (S.D.Ind. 2010).

Following class certification, the defendants moved for summary judgment. On April 13, 2011 the district court granted the motion as to the three remaining class-action claims and dismissed the case in its entirety.

In regard to the HIPAA claims, the court found – and the plaintiffs conceded – that “HIPAA does not grant a private right of action.” Thus, those claims were dismissed. As for the plaintiffs’ Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment claims, the district court held that it would consider the claims in light of conditions at MCJ as they currently exist, not as they existed in 2008 when the lawsuit was filed.

“Because the relief in this case would be limited to injunctive or declaratory relief, the Court concludes that evidence regarding Defendants’ remedying of conditions is relevant and should be considered in conjunction with Plaintiffs’ evidence regarding previous conditions.”

Noting that significant improvements had been made at the jail in the interim, the court concluded that the presence of gnats and mold was “insufficient to rise to the level of a constitutional violation,” and that the plaintiffs had failed to allege physical or mental injuries resulting from conditions in the intake areas at the jail. As the court found the defendants were not deliberately indifferent to unconstitutional conditions at MCJ, the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment claims were dismissed.

Finally, as to the plaintiffs’ allegations that CCA offered financial incentives for staff to provide less medical care to prisoners, not report errors and report more favorable conditions at MCJ, the district court found no evidence to support those claims.

The plaintiffs have since appealed the court’s summary judgment order to the Seventh Circuit, and PLN will report the outcome of that appeal. See: Kress v. CCA of Tennessee, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Ind.), Case No. 1:08-cv-00431-LJM-DML.

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Related legal cases

Kress v. CCA of Tennessee

Kress v. CCA of Tennessee