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Pennsylvania: Class-action Suit Against USP Lewisburg Reinstated

by Derek Gilna

Sebastian Richardson, a former prisoner held in the Special Management Unit (SMU) at the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, has won an important legal victory against the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). In a July 15, 2016 ruling, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court’s decision that denied his lawsuit class-action status after the BOP transferred him from Lewisburg to another facility.

The pro se lawsuit, previously covered in PLN, alleged violations of Richardson’s civil rights stemming from numerous incidents of violence at the high-security USP Lewisburg. [See: PLN, April 2017, p.16].

As noted by the Third Circuit, Richardson claimed that prison officials “frequently placed inmates in cells with hostile cellmates, unnecessarily increasing the risk of inmate-on-inmate violence.... He further alleges that if an inmate refused to accept a hostile cellmate, he would be placed in painful restraints as a form of punishment.... Richardson claims that he was subjected to this policy and that it violated his Fifth and Eighth Amendment rights.”

“[The prisoners] are not a threat to anyone, they’re not a danger to anyone,”
said Dave Sprout, with the Lewisburg Prison Project. “They’re just being punished for not having a cell mate. And we believe that is against BOP policy and against the law.”

The Court of Appeals wrote that Richardson was seeking “monetary damages and class-wide injunctive relief” for “[a]ll persons who are currently or will be imprisoned in the SMU program at USP Lewisburg,” and sought “class certification under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(2),” but the district court denied certification because it found the class definition was not “objectively, reasonably ascertainable.”

While Richardson was litigating the case, the BOP decided the best way to defend against the lawsuit was to transfer him from Lewisburg to another facility, hoping to render his claims moot. He was transferred just six weeks after filing an amended complaint. That maneuver is often used by prison officials in lawsuits seeking injunctive relief; it worked in this case, but only for a while.

“We conclude that Richardson’s class claims are not moot,” the Third Circuit stated, citing Shelton v. Bledsoe, 775 F.3d 554 (3d Cir. 2015). “As we have previously held, when individual claims for relief are acutely susceptible to mootness, a would-be class representative may, in some circumstances, continue to seek class certification after losing his personal stake in the case.” The appellate ruling provided an extensive discussion of issues related to mootness, and explained how Richardson’s claims were not rendered moot even after he had been transferred and although the defendants named in his suit had since “retired or changed jobs.”

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings, where Richardson is now represented by the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project and Dechert, LLP. See: Richardson v. Dir. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 829 F.3d 273 (3d Cir. 2016).

Following remand, in a June 26, 2017 report and recommendation, a magistrate judge found “the claims in this case are well-suited for class certification under Rule 23(b)(2),” and the case should be certified as a class-action. However, on October 17, 2017 the district court denied the motion for class certification without prejudice. The case remains pending; the court granted in part and denied in part Richardson’s motion to compel discovery on June 14, 2018. See: Richardson v. Kane, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 3:11-cv-02266-MWB-SES. 



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Related legal cases

Richardson v. Kane

Richardson v. Dir. Fed. Bureau of Prisons