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Eleventh Circuit Vacates COVID-19 Injunction Against Miami Jail

That was the June 15, 2020, finding by the Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which vacated a preliminary injunction requiring officials at Miami’s Metro West Detention Center (Metro West), the largest jail in Florida and one of three jails run by Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitations Department (MDCRD), to employ numerous safety requirements to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

PLN previously reported on a U.S. District Court’s grant of the preliminary injunction, as well as the Eleventh Circuit’s May 5, 2020, stay of that order. [See PLN, June 2020, page 28]. That stay was set to expire June 15, 2020, the same day the Eleventh Circuit issued its ruling.

On June 16, 2020, MDCRD reported that 592 prisoners and 123 employees at Metro West had tested positive for COVID-19. One inmate had died and 30 remained in medical isolation, while 82 employees had returned to work.

That was four days after the lead plaintiff in the original suit, 43-year-old quadriplegic Anthony Swain, was released with an ankle monitor from Metro West to his parents’ home. He had tested positive for the disease on May 10, 2020, after complaining of shortness of breath for several weeks. The last $15,000 payment for his $650,000 release bond was donated by former NFL quarterback and racial justice advocate Colin Kaepernick.

Swain and six other Metro West detainees filed their class action on April 5, 2020. The federal district court for the Southern District of Florida on April 29, 2020, issued a preliminary injunction that required Metro West to provide detainees with masks, an individual supply of soap, enforce 6 feet of spacing between detainees, test all detainees for COVID-19, waive medical co-pays and grievance charges, and provide disinfecting supplies. It also imposed stringent reporting requirements.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit vacated the injunction, saying the prisoners in the class had failed to show that defendants at MDCRD were “deliberately indifferent” to their COVID-19 risk. The district court had affirmatively answered that question based on two considerations: “(1) the increase in the rate of infections at Metro West and (2) the lack — and seeming possibility — of meaningful social distancing at the facility.”

But the Eleventh Circuit held that “the district court erred.”

“Neither the resultant harm of increasing infections nor the impossibility of achieving six-foot social distancing in a jail environment establishes that the defendants acted with ‘subjective recklessness as used in the criminal law,’” the Court concluded, citing the standard established in Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994).

Instead, to show that defendants acted with a culpable state of mind, the Eleventh Circuit said the lower court must “focus not on isolated failures — or impossibilities, as the case may be — but rather on the defendants’ entire course of conduct.”

The court pointed to an expert report on conditions at Metro West commissioned by the district court, which found the defendants “did their best” in regards to social distancing by staggering bunks head to foot and placing tape on the floor to encourage social distancing in lines. It also noted staff and detainees were required to wear masks, visits were canceled, staff members were screened, detainees’ temperatures were taken, and disinfecting and hygiene supplies were provided.

Issuing the majority opinion, Judges Kevin C. Newsom and W. Keith Watkins also found the class failed to show it would suffer irreparable injury “unless the injunction issues” because there was no “finding about the extent and efficacy of the measures that the defendants were already taking.”

In dissent, Judge Beverly B. Martin noted the report’s experts recommended an “urgent decrease” in Metro West’s population, yet the jail continued to detain more people than it “can safely hold during this pandemic.” She also pointed out that the district court had not failed to consider defendants’ assurances that “everything that could be done was being done” but had in fact rejected them. Declarations from detainees, Judge Martin noted, showed “repeated failures to enact adequate social distancing measures” that betrayed a “systematic, institutional pattern of deliberate indifference.”

The majority, however, said it “cannot conclude that, when faced with a perfect storm of a contagious virus and space constraints inherent in a correctional facility, the defendants here acted unreasonably by ‘doing their best.’” They also noted that since the pandemic began, Metro West’s population had been reduced to less than 70 percent of capacity.

The majority further found that requiring testing of all detainees with COVID-19 symptoms and everyone they came in contact with forced the defendants to “allocate limited testing resources at Metro West at the expense of other county facilities” and violated “politically accountable” county officials’ “keen interest in maintaining the necessary flexibility to react quickly in response to new information about the virus.”

Thus, the district court’s order was vacated because it failed to demonstrate the defendants were utterly reckless in their response to protect detainees from the spread of COVID-19. The case was remanded to the lower court for a correspondingly modified opinion. See: Swain v. Junior, 961 F.3d 1276 (11th Cir. 2020). 


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Related legal case

Swain v. Junior