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Illinois Jail Detainee’s Inadequate Food and Contaminated Water Claims Survive Initial Dismissal

On September 25, 2015, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of a civil rights action brought by a pre-trial detainee at Illinois’ Cook County Jail that alleged inadequate food and contaminated water. However, the Court affirmed the dismissal of claims challenging inhumane working and living conditions and insufficient wages.

Pre-trial detainee Donald A. Smith sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and the district court dismissed his complaint. The Seventh Circuit held that Smith’s conditions of confinement claims brought under the Fourteenth Amendment – as appropriate for pre-trial detainees – were properly analyzed under Eighth Amendment standards. The appellate court held there is no “gray area,” as Smith had contended, between the two Amendments.

Smith raised five conditions of confinement claims: 1) inadequate food, 2) the presence of rodents and insects, 3) no mirrors, 4) lack of outdoor recreation and 5) contaminated water. With respect to the first claim, Smith alleged that his “[f]ood is well below nutritional value.” The appellate court held those “six words make all the difference under our precedent.” Since the Constitution requires that prisoners receive a “nutritionally sufficient diet,” the first claim should not have been dismissed.

While pest infestations may form the basis for a conditions of confinement claim, Smith’s allegations failed to approach the severity of conditions sufficient to state a claim. The Court of Appeals did not doubt rodents and insects were present in the Cook County Jail, but wrote, “we are left in the dark as to how extensive the infestations are and how the pests affect [Smith].” The lack of specific allegations left the Court to “speculate,” which resulted in dismissal.

As to the third claim, Smith also failed to detail factual allegations. He merely claimed he “can[’]t go outside [for] recreation.” Lack of recreation can rise to a constitutional violation “where movement is denied and muscles are allowed to atrophy and the health of the individual is threatened.” However, Smith’s claims did not “allege that his movements are restricted to the point that he is unable to exercise inside his cell or in jail common areas.” Thus, that claim also was properly dismissed.

The contaminated water claim alleged the Cook County Jail’s water supply was “polluted and contains high levels of alpha and beta radiation also cyanide and lead.” Accepting those claims as true, as required at that stage of the litigation, the appellate court held they should not have been dismissed.

Finally, the Seventh Circuit examined Smith’s work and wage-related claims. He alleged that he was forced to “stand seven to eight hours a day in a ‘hot, smelly room’” as a worker in the jail’s laundry. He also alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) based on his “$3 per day, sub-minimum wage pay.”

Prisoners, civil detainees and pre-trial detainees “are not protected by the FLSA because they are not employees of their prison,” the Court of Appeals wrote. FLSA does not apply to prisoners because “their basic human needs [are] provided for by the state.”

The case was remanded for further proceedings on Smith’s inadequate food and contaminated water claims, and the dismissal of all the other claims was affirmed. Circuit Judge Richard A. Posner entered both a concurring and dissenting opinion in the case. See: Smith v. Dart, 803 F.3d 304 (7th Cir. 2015). Following remand the case settled in November 2015 for $1,000; the law firm representing Smith agreed to forego their fees. 

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Related legal case

Smith v. Dart