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New Hampshire Prisoner Sues to Enforce Conditions of Consent Decree

The court’s November 20, 2020 opinion was issued in an appeal brought by prisoner Clifford E. Avery. A prisoner at New Hampshire State Prison for Men (NHSP), Avery was part of a class action lawsuit that resulted in a federal court finding the conditions at NHSP subjected prisoners to cruel and unusual punishment.

The lawsuit was resolved via a 2001 consent decree. It required the New Hampshire Department of Corrections (NHDOC) to provide prisoners with certain services and to inspect NHSP and ensure its conditions comport with specified standards (See Laaman v. Warden, New. Hampshire State Prison, 238 F.3d 14, 1st Cir. 2001). The federal court terminated jurisdiction, finding the Laaman Settlement Agreement constituted “a settlement agreement enforceable by the courts of the State of New Hampshire.”

Avery filed a Petition for Enforcement of a Settlement Agreement in July 2018, which alleged NHDOC breached the contract and sought specific performance of the Laaman Settlement Agreement. He alleged numerous conditional violations, citing decrepit ventilation systems in multiple housing units, overcrowded housing conditions, and contaminated water that leaked into the food service area. He also alleged NHDOC was failing to provide required counseling programs.

The state trial court dismissed the suit as barred by sovereign immunity. The court concluded RSA 491:8 waived sovereign immunity only for contract actions seeking money damages. As Avery failed to allege any injury to himself, he was found to lack standing to sue for breach of the Laaman Settlement Agreement.

On appeal, NHDOC conceded that the July 2020 Legislative amendment to RSA 491:8 waived the State’s immunity for actions “founded upon any express or implied contract with the state, including performance and other equitable remedies that are not limited to money damages.” While NHDOC withdrew its sovereign immunity defense on appeal, it reserved its right to argue in the trial court that the Laaman Settlement Agreement is not the type contemplated by RSA 491:8.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court found it would be contrary to the interests of judicial economy to not address this question of subject matter jurisdiction. It then proceeded to interpret the amendment to RSA 491:8. It found the amendment specifically provided that courts have jurisdiction in cases, “founded upon any express or implied contract with the state, including specific performance and other equitable remedies that are not limited to money damages.

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Related legal case

Avery v. Comm’r, N.H. Dep’t of Corr.,