Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Court of Appeals reinstates prisoners' rights case

The Court of Appeals has reinstated a 20-plaintiff lawsuit that alleges that pre-arraignment detainees at Brooklyn Central Booking endured appalling and disgusting conditions, including broken toilets, feces-encrusted cells, rodents, lack of access to sanitary and hygienic items like toilet paper and inadequate nutrition. Along the way, the Second Circuit applies a new standard governing the due process rights of pre-trial detainees and criticizes the trial court's failure to honor elementary summary judgment principles.

The case is Darnell v. City of New York, decided on February 21. I was one of the brief-writers on this appeal. You are probably eating lunch as you read this, so I will not nauseate you with the details about what these detainees went through. In particular, I will not tell you that some detainees saw rodents crawling in and out of the food boxes. Writing for the Second Circuit, Judge Koeltl summarizes the case this way:

The plaintiffs paint a picture of BCB that is alarming and appalling. The plaintiffs testified that they found the conditions at BCB degrading, humiliating, and emotionally scarring. One plaintiff testified: “I was not treated in a humane manner. I believe if I were a dog, and that if the A.S.P.C.A. was brought in and there was a dog in that cell, that the police officers, whoever were responsible for the treatment of that dog in that cell, that they would be brought up on charges.” Another plaintiff had an anxiety attack that required hospitalization, which he explained:
[S]tarted because of the deplorable conditions. I tried holding my bowel for about four hours. I wasn’t able to use the bathroom or any form of the bathroom and I found it very hard to breathe. My chest was very heavy and I tried to alert the guard. One guard just walked by and when they were letting in more people I told the guard I have to go to the hospital. I’m having chest pains and it was maybe 30 minutes after that they took me to the medical cell.
The due process clause prohibits inhumane jail conditions for pre-trial detainees, i.e., people who have not yet been convicted of anything. The plaintiffs have to show that jail officials were deliberately indifferent to the bad conditions. The Court of Appeals (Leval, Lohier and Koeltl [D.J.])
says the trial court got it wrong in finding the plaintiffs did not suffer unconstitutional conditions. In particular, the trial court said the plaintiffs did not suffer long enough because they were not locked up for more than 24 hours. The trial court also said the plaintiffs did not suffer long-term injuries. But the Court of Appeals says there is not hard and fast rule governing how long someone has to be exposed to this before they can bring a lawsuit. "The proper lens through which to analyze allegedly unconstitutional unsanitary conditions of confinement is with reference to their severity and duration, not the detainee's resulting injury." There is no "minimal level of grotesquerie required" before these cases become viable. While "the District court essentially ruled that no set of conditions, no matter how egregious, could state a due process violation if the conditions existed for no more than ten to twenty-four hours," that is not the law.

The next question is what is the required mental culpability for jail officials to hold them liable. When the trial court had this case, the long-standing view was that government officials had to subjectively intend to punish the detainees. That changed in 2015, when the Supreme Court ruled in Kingsley v. Henderickson, 135 S.Ct. 2466 (2015), that the subjective test is only relevant in Eighth Amendment cases brought by convicted felons who are challenging their punishment. The subjective test does not apply in Fourteenth Amendment cases filed by pre-trial detainees who are legally presumed to be as innocent as the winter-driven show on Christmas morning. The new standard is as follows:

to establish a claim for deliberate indifference to conditions of confinement under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the pretrial detainee must prove that the defendant-official acted intentionally to impose the alleged condition, or recklessly failed to act with reasonable care to mitigate the risk that the condition posed to the pretrial detainee even though the defendant-official knew, or should have known, that the condition posed an excessive risk to health or safety. In other words, the “subjective prong” (or “mens rea prong”) of a deliberate indifference claim is defined
This holding is a major development for prisoners' rights litigation. The subjective test that no longer applies for pre-trial detainees had regularly killed off many cases where the plaintiffs could not prove the guards intended to watch them suffer.

Finally, the Court of Appeals takes the trial judge to task for ignoring part of the record in finding the plaintiffs did not suffer badly enough. On a summary judgment motion, the judge has to assume the jury will believe the plaintiff's evidence and then decide if that evidence is enough to win. One example of the trial court's error involved a female plaintiff who said the facility "served 'wonderful cheese and bologna sandwiches.'" The trial court used this testimony to show the plaintiffs did not really suffer inadequate nutrition. But, the Court of Appeals says, this testimony was sarcastic, as she also testified that "she did not eat the sandwiches 'because the cheese was dry, the broad was dry, and she wouldn't feed it to her dog."

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