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Federal Court Certifies Class in Texas Prison Excessive Heat Lawsuit

On January 22, 2016, a federal district court in Texas certified a class and two subclasses, and appointed class counsel, in a lawsuit challenging excessive heat at a state prison.

Keith Cole, Ray Wilson, Jackie Brannum, Dean Mojica, Richard King, Fred Wallace and Marvin Ray Yates are Texas prisoners incarcerated at the Wallace Pack Unit, a medical and geriatric facility run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). All but Mojica suffer from physiological conditions or take medications that make them especially sensitive to excessive levels of heat.

They filed a lawsuit in federal court in 2014 pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act (RA), alleging that TDCJ’s policies and practices of exposing Wallace Pack prisoners to excessive heat during the summer months endangered their health and lives, and constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The plaintiffs also argued the TDCJ had failed to make reasonable accommodations for prisoners with disabilities who are especially sensitive to heat in violation of the ADA and RA. They sought class certification and a preliminary injunction; their case was one of several challenging excessive levels of heat in Texas’ prison system. [See: PLN, Aug. 2014, p.36].

The defendant prison officials opposed class certification. However, the district court held the class was ascertainable because the TDCJ itself had a list of which prisoners used medications and/or had physiological conditions that caused heat sensitivity. It held that neither the Prison Litigation Reform Act nor binding precedent precluded certification, and that the proposed class met the requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(a) for numerosity, commonality and typicality.

The district court noted that two of the defendants’ experts had offered opinions based upon false assumptions or manipulated statistics, which made them less credible. By contrast, the plaintiffs’ experts presented well-reasoned and persuasive reports describing the excessive heat at Wallace Pack and the dangers presented by such heat. Therefore, the court certified a general class of all Wallace Pack prisoners who are or will be subjected to the TDCJ’s policies and practices of failing to regulate indoor heat in housing areas, plus two subclasses.

The first subclass includes prisoners who have physiological conditions or take medications that put them at increased risk of heat-related illness. The second subclass includes prisoners with a disability that substantially limits a major life activity who are at increased risk of heat-related illness due to their disability or medical treatment for the disability. The court also appointed existing counsel – attorneys from Edwards Law, the Law Offices of Mike Singley and the Texas Civil Rights Project – as class counsel.

On June 21, 2016, the district court granted a preliminary injunction requiring the TDCJ to provide drinking water to Wallace Pack Unit prisoners that is not contaminated by arsenic – contaminated water being a longstanding problem at that facility. [See: PLN, Nov. 2016, p.22]. The case remains pending. See: Cole v. Collier, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Texas), Case No. 4:14-cv-01698; 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7509.

In a separate case, on February 3, 2017 the same federal district court held that a civil rights action involving a Texas state prisoner who died due to heat-related causes will go to trial. Larry Gene McCollum, 58, died of heat stroke in July 2011 at the Hutchins State Jail while serving a one-year sentence; he was one of 22 Texas prisoners whose deaths were caused by extreme heat since 1998. Of the TDCJ’s 109 facilities, according to a news report, only 30 are fully air-conditioned.

In denying in part motions for summary judgment filed by the defendants in a wrongful death suit brought by McCollum’s family, the district court wrote that “Larry McCollum’s tragic death was not simply bad luck, but an entirely preventable consequence of inadequate policies.” State officials said they would appeal the ruling. See: McCollum v. Livingston, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Texas), Case No. 4:14-cv-03253; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 19602. 

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Related legal cases

McCollum v. Livingston

Cole v. Collier