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District Court Certifies Class Status in Louisville Jail Overdetention of Prisoners’ Suit

In February 2017, plaintiffs Jacob Healy, James Michael Jarvis, Jr., Cynthia Dawn Yates, and Betty Melloan (added as plaintiff after Jan. 8, 2018) filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against defendants Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government and Mark Bolton, Director of LMDC. Healy alleged that he was ordered by the Jefferson County District Court to serve a three-day imprisonment at LMDC, but he was held for five. Jarvis, Yates, and Melloan claimed they were illegally detained for periods ranging from 30 hours to six days after the court ordered their release on their own recognizance (ROR).

Plaintiffs, represented by attorneys James D. Ballinger and Gregory A. Belzley, subsequently moved under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for certification of a class comprised of, “All persons who, since February 3, 2016, were imprisoned, detained or incarcerated more than four hours after: (a) entry of an order directing their release; and/or (b) satisfaction of their term of incarceration set by prior court order.”

Plaintiffs supported their motion with evidence that: (1) in January 2017, Jefferson County District Court Judge Stephanie Burke ordered Bolton to appear to show cause as to why LMDC shouldn’t be held in contempt for violating her orders in 15 incidents and noting these did not include all incidents; (2) external auditor CGL Companies had examined the procedures and the computer system utilized by LMDC for processing court orders, had identified problems, and had recommended corrections; (3) Bolton and other employees gave deposition testimony revealing they had known since 2011 about the problems with their procedures that resulted in delayed releases but had implemented none of CGL’s recommendations; and (4) samples of statistical data revealed thousands of inmates were held for more than four hours after LMDC received release orders and hundreds were held for more than twelve hours after completing their sentences.

The district court observed, “the Sixth Circuit has not yet considered whether this type of over-detention is class certifiable.” The court then sought guidance from opinions outside the circuit. In Davis v. Hall, 375 F.3d 703 (8th Cir. 2004), the justices determined that a delay of just thirty minutes beyond ordered release could give rise to a Fourteenth Amendment violation. But in Gerstein v. Pugh, 420 U.S. 103 (1975), it was held that delays of up to 48 hours in probable cause hearings in warrantless arrests were constitutional as long as the reasons for the delays were due to circumstances beyond the control of the arresting officers.

In Driver v. Marion Cty. Sheriff, 859 F.3d 489 (7th Cir. 2017), a district court’s order denying plaintiffs’ proposed classes was reversed. The plaintiffs had sought class certification of all persons since December 19, 2012, who were held up to 72 hours after their ordered releases due to the Sheriff’s policy and use of an inadequate computer system. The Seventh Circuit had reasoned that class certification was appropriate because the plaintiffs pointed to a specific pattern or practice that caused the unconstitutional delay for each putative class member.

Driver was distinguished from Harper v. Sheriff of Cook Cty, 581 F.3d 511 (7th Cir. 2009), where plaintiffs were denied class certification because the reasons for those delays varied among each plaintiff and required individualized determinations of fact to determine if a constitutional violation occurred; thus, class certification was inappropriate.

In Wharton v. Danberg, 854 F.3d 234 (3d Cir. 2017), the Third Circuit affirmed an order denying class certification because plaintiffs had relied on anecdotal evidence (via affidavits of family members, defense attorneys, and others) that defendants were responsible for the delays. This evidence did not overcome other evidence that the delays were attributable to the courts.

In the instant case, the plaintiffs had presented statistical evidence that it was the defendants’ policy (or lack thereof) that caused the untimely releases. However, the district court recognized that “imprisoned” plaintiffs are those who had been sentenced to confinement in the LMDC pursuant to a prior court order but “detained” plaintiffs were held in the LMDC pursuant to arrest. LMDC would know the date of release for an imprisoned plaintiff in advance but an order releasing a detained plaintiff on bond or ROR would be received the day of the ordered release.

Rule 23 authorizes district courts to define sua sponte a particular class when necessary. The court created two subclasses. Both subclasses included all persons since February 3, 2016 who were untimely released due to the failure of defendants to implement and maintain an adequate process for timely release. Subclass A included imprisoned persons who were held for more than four hours after satisfaction of their court-ordered term of imprisonment. Subclass B included all persons detained for more than twelve hours after defendants received an order directing their release.

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Related legal case

Healy v. Louisville Metro Gov’t,