by Kevin Bliss
n October 22, 2021, federal Judge Robert Hinkle of the Northern District of Florida certified a class of plaintiffs in a suit accusing the state Department of Corrections (DOC) of housing juveniles and juveniles with disabilities in solitary confinement under unconstitutional conditions.
G.H. and R.L. are both 15-year-olds under the care of the Florida DOC. Both have been repeatedly placed in solitary confinement for disciplinary purposes. G.H has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, mood disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. R.L. suffers bipolar disorder, post-traumatic disorder, major depressive disorder, conduct disorder, and intermittent explosive and schizoaffective disorder.
Represented by counsel from the Florida Justice Institute, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Florida Legal Services, the two minors filed suit alleging unconstitutional conditions of confinement in segregation, including feces-covered walls and inadequate staffing both for healthcare and mental healthcare, leaving them to suffer self-harm.
In the Court’s order certifying a class of similarly situated individuals, Judge Hinkle said it was not necessary at this point in the litigation to prove the suit would prevail on the merits, only that there existed a possible pattern of unconstitutional treatment.
“Were it otherwise, the defendants, not the plaintiffs, would have prevailed in the school cases and other class actions challenging social discrimination in the 1960s and 1970s—cases that brought about the desegregation of the South and were perhaps this circuit’s jurisdictional predecessor’s finest hour,” wrote Hinkle in his order.
DOC records showed that between 2,720 and 3,853 juveniles were placed in solitary each year between 2014 and 2020, so the Court found a sufficient number of individuals to make creating a class practical. Records also reflected that 65% of juveniles in DOC have some form of mental illness or substance abuse problem.
The order further stated that the certified class had certain questions of law or fact in common which, when resolved, would affect issues central to every one of the claims simultaneously. Specifically, the alleged conditions in solitary denied Plaintiff class members adequate access to recreation, were unsanitary, prevented necessary education, and denied appropriate mental healthcare.
The Court also found the attorneys representing G.H. and R.L could provide the class adequate representation in seeking injunctive and declaratory relief. Thus the order certified a class of juveniles held in solitary in DOC and a subclass of juveniles with disabilities subject to policies which may have unconstitutionally placed them in solitary confinement. See: G.H. v. Tamayo, 339 F.R.D. 584 (N.D. Fla. 2021).
In a separate ruling signed on November 18, 2021, Hinkle compelled DOC to comply with a discovery order making records of mental health evaluations available to Plaintiffs’ experts, overruling DOC’s objections to doing so without parental consent, since the experts were not treating the juveniles for maladies but using the information for litigation purposes. See: G.H. v. Tamayo, USDC (N.D. Fla.), Case No. 4:19-cv-00431.
DOC took its objections then to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, but that court declined to issue a writ of mandamus on December 29, 2021, leaving the case to proceed toward trial at the district court later in 2022. See: In re: Fla. Dep’t of Juvenile Justice, 2021 US App. LEXIS 38536.
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Related legal case
In re: Fla. Dep’t of Juvenile Justice
|Cite||2021 US App. LEXIS 38536|
|Level||Court of Appeals|