Thursday, November 21, 2019

Prison class-action consent decree is revived

In 1982, a consent degree was entered that required Green Haven Correctional Facility to provide inmates with adequate health care. An independent monitor then audited the health care at Green Haven to ensure that it satisfied constitutional standards. The consent decree was lifted in in 2015, after class counsel advised the district court that the state had represented that it would meet with plaintiff's expert to enable him to present his expert findings with respect to medical care. One inmate has now challenged the termination of the consent decree. The Court of Appeals agrees with him, and the consent decree is operative again.

The case is Irvin v. Harris, issued on November 19. Consent decrees became a thing in the 1970s and 1980s when plaintiffs' lawyers were able to prove that jails and prisons were not in compliance with constitutional standards. The decree meant that the institutions had to submit to monitoring from outside experts and lawyers. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, Congress made it easier for institutions to have the decrees lifted. As you can see from above, the Green Haven decree was lifted in 2015. But there were problems in lifting the decree. It appears the plaintiffs' class counsel did not adequately consult with Green Haven inmates about termination of the decree. One of those inmates is Irvin, who brought asked Southern District of New York to reopen the decree. The SDNY denied that motion, but the Court of Appeals (Pooler, Lohier and Carney) agrees with Irvin.

Irvin's arguments are as follows:

Irvin argued that the termination should be rescinded because, among other arguments: (1) if class counsel had just “taken the time to come to the prison and seen for themselves, by interviewing some of the class members themselves, they would have gotten completely different opinions,” (2) class counsel “lacked enough information and the authority to withdraw the opposition to the termination,” and (3) class counsel withdrew their objections to termination “without consulting with any of the individual members of the class, especially, those inmates housed in the Unit for the Physically Disable[d].”

The Court first rules that Irvin has standing to bring this motion. He satisfies the high burden associated with standing to reopen the case. The Second Circuit states that "it is undisputed that no named representatives were present to protect the interests of the class during termination proceedings, because none of them were still incarcerated at Green Haven and no new representatives had been substituted in. This exemplifies 'extraordinary circumstances in which a non‐party had interests on which the outcome of the proceedings had significant consequences . . . yet those interests had not been adequately represented during litigation, because of the peculiar structure of [the] case.'” And, Irvin is still connected with the suit and is therefore bound by the judgment terminating the consent decree. This case is Irvin's business, and that means he has standing.

On the merits, the Court notes that “the Due Process Clause ,. . . requires that the named plaintiff at all times adequately represent the interests of the absent class members.” The decree is so old that none of the named class representatives were still incarcerated at Green Haven when the termination proceedings were underway. This means none of the named class representatives retained interests in common with the class. "In short, named representatives of a Green Haven inmate class certified 35 years before the relevant proceedings do not adequately represent the class when they are no longer Green Haven inmates and have not continued to pursue the litigation." The Court concludes that, based on the lack of notice about the terminating proceedings, the class of current inmates were not adequately represented when the consent decree terminated.

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