Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Court Rejects Class Status for Nebraska Prisoners Facing Substandard Health Care

The court’s June 8, 2020, order resolved 11 pending motions. The motion for class certification sought to certify a class of “all persons who are now, or will be in the future, subjected to the health care (including medical, mental health, and dental care) policies and practices of NCDS.” It also sought to create subclasses for prisoners with disabilities and those in any type of confinement isolation.

The 11 lead plaintiffs varied in ages, were held at several different prison and suffered from a variety of health-care issues. The court concluded the action was “not suitable for class treatment for several reasons … including the fact that inmates’ individual medical needs run the gamut from no health issues at all to significant illness and conditions requiring frequent and considerable treatment.”

The court noted that NCDS has 10 prisons that house over 5,600 prisoners. It has administrative regulations (ARs) in place to “address a wide range of healthcare, dental, mental health, and isolation policies.” A coordinator at each prison oversees the provision of health care at each prison. The plaintiffs pointed to those ARs and other policies as evidence that NCDS’ health care is centralized and within its control.

Each of the individual plaintiffs’ claims were then detailed by the court, as were the declarations of the parties’ medical experts. Naturally, those experts’ opinions on the state of NCDS’s delivery of health care differed greatly. The court then turned to analyzing whether the plaintiffs met the requirements for class certification under Rule 23(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

It found the class and subclasses met the numerosity requirement. However, it concluded the commonality requirement was not met because the “proposed solutions to the alleged deficiencies in NCDS’s health-care system” were too diverse and would “require individualized rather than class-wide application.”

Therefore, the general class was found to be “too broad and that its members have such disparate medical needs that the questions are neither common nor resolved by a class-wide answer.” In addition, the plaintiffs complained of “different inadequacies in the care they received.”

It was also concluded that the experts’ opinions do not present common questions capable of a class wide solution. The plaintiffs’ expert, Dr. Marc Stern, identified “isolated occasions of alleged inadequate treatment and [did] not demonstrate a pattern or common policy across the class or subclass,” the court wrote. “Dr. Stern’s other assertions of supposed systematic inadequacies are not supported by the facts.”

The court concluded the plaintiffs failed to meet the commonality and typicality requirement, and decreed that the class and subclasses “will not be certified” as a result of those failures.

“In addition, the Court declines to exercise authority over the Nebraska prison system as Plaintiffs request because doing so would be contrary to the idea of federalism outlined in the United States Constitution,” wrote the court. “Plaintiffs’ request for class certification in this case, if granted, would also likely lead to this Court overseeing a significant portion of the operation of Nebraska’s prisons, including health care provided to prisoners, the adequacy of procedures applicable to prison administration, and the grievance process for prisoners.”

The Court noted that other jurisdictions that have overseen such litigation were burdened with “motions related to the original claims for an extended period of time.” That was apparently a task that U.S. District Judge Brian C. Buesher, who was assigned the case shortly after his confirmation by the United States Senate on September 5, 2019, wanted to take on as he began his federal judgeship career.

On other motions, the court denied the defendants’ motions objecting to consideration of the plaintiffs’ affidavits and objections to the magistrate’s order on expert witnesses. It also denied defendants motion for summary judgment on grounds the plaintiffs failed to exhaust administrative remedies.

It, however, granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the claim regarding review of prisoners sentenced to life. Prior to 2018, Nebraska law provided prisoners serving life sentences with a right to a parole review hearing. That law changed effective July 19, 2018, and only parole-eligible prisoners were granted review. Because prisoners serving life are ineligible for release and are no longer entitled to parole review hearings, the prisoners’ American Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act claims related to parole hearings lacked standing and were dismissed.

The Court also denied discovery on NCDS’s COVID-19 procedures because it was not an issue in the proceedings. Finally, the court dismissed all claims related to plaintiffs who were released since the action was filed. It, however, denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the individual claims of prisoners Zoe Rena and Jason Galle.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Sabata v. Nebraska Department of Correctional Services