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COVID-19 Consent Decree Terminated at Florida’s Broward County Jail

by David M. Reutter

On August 14, 2023, the federal court for the Southern District of Florida issued its latest ruling in a long-running case brought by detainees at the Broward County Jail exposed to a risk of COVID-19 infection during the pandemic. Overruling Plaintiffs’ objections, the Court adopted the report and recommendation of a magistrate judge and terminated the consent decree under which the jail had been operating.

The lawsuit was filed early in the pandemic on June 5, 2020, raising claims under the Eighth and Fourteenth amendments, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. ch. 126 § 12010 et seq., and the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq. Almost a year later, the parties reached a settlement, which the court approved, certifying a settlement class on May 13, 2021. But the court retained jurisdiction to enforce the agreement as a consent decree.

On September 22, 2021, the class filed a motion for enforcement and modification, asserting that Defendant’s failures combined with changed circumstances led to a swell in the number of new infections. Magistrate Judge Lurana S. Snow held an evidentiary hearing and issued a report and recommendation on November 19, 2021. After considering the parties’ objections, District Judge William P. Dimitrouleus entered an order on January 31, 2022.

Under that, BCJ was required to conduct a COVID-19 test on all individuals at intake. All detainees released from or leaving BCJ were also ordered given a rapid test to ensure no wait for results that might delay these planned exits. In addition, BCJ was ordered to ensure that individuals and quarantine units were tested for COVID-19 every three to seven days until testing identified no new cases. But the Court found no need for an independent monitor and that modification of the consent decree was not necessary.

On May 12, 2022, the evening before the consent decree was set to expire, Plaintiffs filed a motion for an Order to Show Cause why Defendant should not be held in contempt. As the Court later recalled, a magistrate judge then “issued an Omnibus Order and Order to Show Cause, granting Plaintiffs’ Motion.”

An evidentiary hearing followed, after which the magistrate issued a report and recommendation on May 18, 2023, finding “Defendant has substantially complied, or has made good faith, reasonable efforts to comply, with the Consent Decree and the Enforcement Order, as well as evolving Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance.” Adopting the magistrate’s recommendations, the Court then denied Plaintiffs’ request to hold Defendant in contempt and terminated the Consent Decree.

The class was represented by attorneys with the national and Florida chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union, Disability Rights Florida and the firm of Sullivan & Cromwell. See Barnett v. Tony, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 141650 (S.D. Fla.).  

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Related legal case

Barnett v. Tony