Friday, September 16, 2011

Court of Appeals revives inmate sex abuse class action

Three thousand inmates in New York sued the state corrections bureaucracy in claiming that female inmates are susceptible to rape and sexual abuse because the state does not properly screen, train and supervise its corrections officers. This class action was filed in 2003, and the Second Circuit heard argument on this appeal in 2009. For now, it rules in favor of the inmates, reversing the district court, which said the case was moot because the named plaintiffs were no longer in jail or did not comply with in-house procedures to challenge the misconduct.

The case is Amidor v. Andrews, decided on August 19. A case is moot if there is no longer a live dispute for the court to resolve. This can happen if you are challenging a policy that no longer will apply to you. In class actions, the case is moot if the policy no longer applies to the named plaintiffs. But mootness is a common-sense idea. A case is not moot if the case is capable of repetition but evading review. In other words, if the case moves to slowly for the court to strike down the policy which may arise again and again, then the courts will review the policy's legality even if it does not apply to the plaintiff when the case is decided.

Inmate cases are at risk for mootness because prisoners come and go and the policy remains in effect. Most of the named plaintiffs here are no longer in jail. The Second Circuit (Winter, Cabranes and Hall) says this is a close case, but it gives one to the inmates. It reasons:

This action is brought on behalf of all women inmates in DOCS custody, alleging constitutionally defective policies and procedures in failing to protect female inmates from sexual harassment, abuse, and assault by male staff. While the entire class may be exposed to the risks caused by the constitutionally defective policies and procedures alleged, as noted, the grievance procedure may be triggered only by an inmate who has been a victim of sexual misconduct. Because the number of inmates subjected to acts of misconduct can be a small fraction of the total inmates at risk, the odds of an inmate being able to complete the grievance procedure and litigate a class action while still incarcerated are rather small. All thirteen appellants were in DOCS custody when they commenced the action; only four remained incarcerated when the district court rendered its September 13, 2005 decision. Four appellants have been released and subsequently reincarcerated during the course of these proceedings, and of these, only two, remained in custody following the filing of the notice of appeal.

Accordingly, we conclude that it was error for the district court to dismiss as moot the claims of the individual plaintiffs who had been released from prison after the filing of the amended complaint.
But while some of the named plaintiffs are still in jail, the case is also at risk for dismissal because of the 13 inmates, only nine filed in-house grievances, and none of those nine raised concerns about the systemic problems with sexual abuse. The Prison Litigation Reform Act requires inmates to file grievances with the jail and follow through with the in-house appeals process before they proceed in court. The PLRA has killed a lot of prisoner lawsuits, and it almost kills this case. But it does not. If all 13 inmates screwed up in their grievances, then the case cannot proceed as a class action. So the Second Circuit goes through the inmates one by one to see who failed and who succeeded. One inmate did hint at systemic abuse, but her grievance was not good enough to preserve her issue in court because she did not follow through on that grievance through the in-house appeals process. Fortunately for the inmate class, three other inmates did file the proper grievance and exhausted the jail appeals process. Those three inmates are the heroes of this case for having successfully navigated the complex maze of in-house inmate grievance procedures that the PLRA has created. The case is remanded to the trial court.

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