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Eleventh Circuit: Preliminary Injunctions Have 90-Day Limit Under PLRA; Permanent Injunction Required to Extend Relief

by David M. Reutter

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that “the entry of a permanent injunction is necessary to prevent a preliminary injunction from expiring by operation of law after 90 days under the PLRA’s (Prison Litigation Reform Act) ‘unless’ clause.” That holding resulted in the Court vacating a preliminary injunction in a class action seeking to correct conditions imposed upon mentally ill women housed at Georgia’s Fulton County Jail (FCJ).

The Court’s July 14, 2021, opinion was issued in an appeal brought by FCJ officials. At issue was the continuing validity of two orders issued by the district court. The first was a July 23, 2019 order granting a preliminary injunction. The second was a September 23, 2019 addendum order explaining the earlier findings in greater detail and making the PLRA requirements of the preliminary injunction final. Those orders required FCJ officials to provide regular out-of-cell time for female detainees with psychiatric disabilities and to improve the sanitary conditions of their cells.

The Defendants appealed on October 18, 2019. The Eleventh Circuit found the preliminary injunction expired by operation of law, making the appeal moot. Its ruling focused on the language in 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(2). Specifically, it focused on the language that provides, “preliminary injunctive relief shall expire within 90 days unless the court does two things: (1) makes the need-narrowness-intrusiveness findings for prospective relief under Section 3626(a)(1), and (2) makes the order final,” the Court wrote. The outcome of this case hinged upon what the Eleventh Circuit termed the “unless clause,” of the “makes the order final requirement.”

The majority noted the Plaintiffs’ interpretation that to “make the order final” means simply to complete or perfect the order by making all the required findings required for the entry of the preliminary injunctive relief.

While it acknowledged the phrase at issue is linguistically awkward and that the Plaintiffs’ interpretation had some merit, the majority found “the word ‘final’ amidst talk of ‘preliminary injunctive relief’ and ‘orders’ naturally evokes, to a legally trained mind, the concept of a ‘final order.’” The Court interpreted that phrase to mean that a district court must issue a “final order,” or a permanent injunction, to prevent a preliminary injunction from expiring after 90 days.

Thus, to continue a preliminary injunction, a district court must hold a trial on the merits and issue a permanent injunction within 90 days of issuing a preliminary injunction. “We acknowledge that 90 days is a short time to reach a final decision on the merits of a complex civil case about prison conditions,” the majority wrote. “Nonetheless, that is what the text of Section 3626(a)(2) calls for.”

Having found the preliminary injunction “expired long ago,” the district court’s orders were vacated. Judge Wilson, in a dissenting opinion, said the majority’s opinion “threatens to leave prisoners in vulnerable, likely unconstitutional situations without relief during the pendency of their lawsuits.”

In disagreeing with the majority, he said they failed to consider what the PLRA chose not to do. “The PLRA,” he wrote, “does not require a permanent injunction to be issued to prevent a preliminary injunction from expiring after 90 days.”

He believed that Congress’ failure to use the phrase “makes the order final” rather than the common legal term “final order” was intentional and it intended a different meaning. Judge Wilson believed it intended that a district court make “all required findings and issues a complete and final preliminary injunction order.”

The majority’s ruling limits preliminary relief to 90 days even where the district court makes the requisite “findings and believes the preliminary injunction is warranted.” Thus, the majority “prevents preliminary injunctions from serving their core equitable purpose of protecting plaintiffs from the substantial threat of irreparable injuries while their claims are pending.”

While the majority asserts the 90-day time limit “expedites the life cycle of prison cases,” Judge Wilson noted this case was only at the summary judgment motion stage more than two years after it was filed. The majority provided “no support or explanation for how or why litigation would be expedited.” Most cases take years before they come to trial, and leaves prisoners “vulnerable to unconstitutional conduct as the merits are litigated at the normal pace.” See: Georgia Advocacy Office v. Jackson, 4 F.4th 1200 (11th Cir. 2021). 

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Related legal case

Georgia Advocacy Office v. Jackson