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Florida District Court Allows Suit Against Prisoner Transport Companies to Proceed

by Dale Chappell

On July 30, 2018, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida denied a motion for judgment on the pleadings filed by Prisoner Transportation Services, LLC (PTS) and its subsidiary, U.S. Corrections, LLC (USC), in a lawsuit over inhumane conditions during the transport of more than 1,000 prisoners.

When Broward County, Florida filed charges against Jeffrey E. Groover, a federal prisoner housed at FCI Butner in North Carolina, the county contracted with USC to pick him up and extradite him to face the charges. During the 52-hour road trip, Groover was forced to sit in a “dog cage” as the van driver called it, which measured just 34 inches wide by 42 inches high. There was no air-conditioning and only one small vent. The van rarely stopped for breaks and Groover was allowed just one cup of water and some food every eight hours. After 24 hours into the trip, Groover suffered delusions and vomited. The driver gave him an extra cup of water. Due to the extreme heat, Groover had a heat stroke.

He filed a pro se lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal court against Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, whose office had hired USC to transport Groover, claiming the inhumane conditions he experienced violated his rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The district court, however, dismissed the case for failure to state a claim under which relief could be granted, because Groover had sued the sheriff, who had no “causal connection” to the conditions during the transport, instead of the transport company. The court also noted that while Groover “expresses his displeasure with the manner in which he was transported ... his assertions are clearly not sufficient to allege any county policy or custom caused any alleged constitutional deprivation.” The district court ignored Groover’s constitutional complaints as to cruel and unusual punishment, stating that “when it appeared as if he were in need of additional water, the driver on his own initiative gave plaintiff the water,” therefore the conditions did not “shock the conscience” nor rise to the level of deliberate indifference.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and vacated the lower court’s order in April 2017, allowing Groover to amend his complaint. The appellate court concluded that “Groover adequately alleged that his constitutional rights were violated based on his exposure to heat and lack of ventilation,” and that the district court’s conclusion that he failed to state a claim was because the court “overlooked his constitutional claim ... and never analyzed whether there was a constitutional violation based on that exposure.” See: Groover v. Broward Cnty. Sheriff, 684 Fed. Appx. 782 (11th Cir. 2017).

On remand, Groover filed an amended complaint that named both PTS and USC as defendants, and the district court denied their subsequent motion for judgment on the pleadings. The court rejected most of the defendants’ arguments related to PTS’ acquisition of USC as a subsidiary in 2016, after Groover’s complaint had been filed. [See: PLN, Oct. 2016, p.62]. It also found that Groover could represent a putative class of prisoners who were transported by PTS or USC, and remained in a transport van for over 24 continuous hours, between the months of June and September from 2014 to the present. A motion for class certification remains pending.

However, the court dismissed Groover’s claims for injunctive relief, finding that because “there are no allegations of a threat of future harm and the events involving Groover occurred in the past,” those claims were moot.

Separately, the district court granted Groover’s discovery requests, ordering PTS to furnish records detailing prisoners who were transported, the temperatures in the vehicles used to transport them and the employees who ignored excessive heat conditions. PTS responded that it had identified at least 1,382 prisoners who were exposed to extreme heat in its transport vehicles.

In October 2018, the district court granted Groover’s motion for reconsideration and allowed his injunctive relief claims to proceed after determining they were not moot. The case remains ongoing. See: Groover v. Prisoner Transport Svcs, LLC, 322 F.Supp.3d 1284 (S.D. Fla. 2018). 

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Related legal case

Groover v. Prisoner Transport Svcs, LLC