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Third Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Federal Prisoner’s Eighth Amendment Suit

Norman N. Shelton, confined in the Special Management Unit (SMU) at the U.S. Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, filed suit alleging that prison officials had “engaged in a pattern, practice, or policy of improperly placing inmates who are known to be hostile to each other in the same cell.” SMUs are generally used to house prisoners with violent tendencies or a history of gang involvement.

Shelton filed his complaint in federal district court “on behalf of himself and other inmates housed in the SMU,” seeking “damages for Shelton personally, but only injunctive and declaratory relief on behalf of the class.” He also alleged that prison staff “fail[ed] to intervene when the predictable inmate-on-inmate violence erupts,” and “improperly restrain[ed] inmates who refuse cell assignments” due to a perceived risk of violence from their cellmates.

The district court denied Shelton’s motion for class certification and granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment; the court also denied Shelton’s Federal Tort Claims Act claims for failure to follow the technical requirements of the Act. He appealed.

The Third Circuit reversed, finding that Shelton should have been granted discovery pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(d), which requires that discovery be permitted during the summary judgment process, and that he was entitled to class-action certification.

The Court of Appeals noted that the district court “did not analyze the specific requirements of Rule 23(a) or Rule 23(b)(2)” governing class actions cases, and had “denied ... class certification because it found that the proposed class was not ‘objectively, reasonably ascertainable.’” The appellate court’s analysis focused on the fact that Shelton sought a 23(b)(2) class, and that “many courts have found [this rule] well suited for cases where the composition of the class is not readily ascertainable,” such as those involving “a shifting prison population.”

The appellate court also found the proposed class was “easily capable of the type of description demanded by Rule 23(c)(1)(B),” which, according to the complaint, was a class comprised of all prisoners confined in the SMU at USP Lewisburg subjected to “unconstitutional patterns, practice, or policies” of prison officials with respect to “(1) placing hostile inmates together in cells or recreation cages ... and (2) failing to take any reasonable measures to protect the inmates from inmate-on-inmate violence....”

Finally, the Third Circuit held the district court had erred when it failed to grant discovery under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(d), noting that if “discovery is incomplete, a district court is rarely justified in granting summary judgment,” especially where the court failed to consider the declaration that Shelton’s attorney filed in response to the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. “This,” the appellate court wrote, “was an abuse of discretion.” The dismissal of Shelton’s FTCA claims was affirmed; the case remains pending on remand. See: Shelton v. Bledsoe, 775 F.3d 554 (3d Cir. 2015). 

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Related legal case

Shelton v. Bledsoe