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Lawsuit Over Winter Power Outage at Brooklyn’s Troubled Federal Detention Center Granted Class Certification

by Kevin Bliss

Class-action status was granted on May 25, 2021, to a federal lawsuit brought by a half-dozen prisoners held by the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) at its Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, New York, who said that when the power went out in January 2019 and cell temperatures plunged to 59 degrees, they were left shivering in the dark for a week. [See: PLN, April 2019, p.48.]

As a severe winter storm passed by MDC, the power failed and an electrical fire broke out on January 27, 2019. Prisoners Daniel Scott, Jeremy Cerda, Oman Ak, Merudh Patel, Gregory Hardy, and Larry Williams were in the prison’s West Building then as the facility was plunged into a power outage lasting for the next seven days.

When the power went out, only emergency lighting remained. Guards ordered all prisoners to lock down in their cells. For some, the lockdown lasted all seven days. There were few lights and no heat in the building. Visitations were cancelled. Showers and meals were cold. All prisoners could do was huddle in their cells and wait in the cold and gloom.

Prisoners complained about the conditions and eating cold meals in the dark. Some had to bathe in the sink because the showers were so cold. Defense cases had preparations stalled because attorneys’ visits were cancelled. Those without sufficient cold-weather clothing had to curl up in their beds to try to maintain body heat.

Prisoners asked guards for information about the conditions. They asked for medical attention. They declared psychological emergencies. All these pleas went unanswered, creating more pain and suffering. Prisoners were told medical staffers did not show up for work because they would not be able to accomplish anything with the power out anyway.

On September 26, 2019, a federal watchdog determined the cause was not the fire previously blamed but was instead the result of “long-standing problems” at MDC’s physical facility. In his 65-page report, Michael Horowitz, Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Justice, BOP’s parent agency, said the “heating issues had been a longstanding problem at the jail that existed before, during, and after the fire and power outage and were unrelated to these events.”

Rather he said the crisis was “the result of the facility’s lack of proper equipment to continuously monitor temperatures, which (BOP) was aware of and had not addressed.”

The affected prisoners filed a tort claim against MDC asking the the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York to certify a class of plaintiffs eligible to join the suit. Judge Edward Norman’s May 25, 2021, ruling said that the criteria for certifying a class had been met and he duly certified the class.

He elaborated further that the class was easily ascertainable as anyone who was being held in MDC between January 27 and February 3, 2019. He found there were enough people affected that certifying a class would facilitate procedures. The questions of law and fact were common to all in the class. Anyone joining the class would not need special consideration; they were all typical to the original six plaintiffs. And the original plaintiffs had adequate representation to proceed in the suit.

Each of the first six plaintiffs is represented by several attorneys, including the law firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel LLP, the Benjamin N. Cardozo Civil Rights Clinic and its Director, Betsy Ginsberg, along with Cardozo School of Law professor Alexander Reinert. See: Scott v. Quay, 338 F.R.D. 178 (E.D. N.Y. 2021). 

Additional sources: ABC News, Impact Fund

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Related legal case

Scott v. Quay