Richardson v. Director Federal BOP — inmate civil rights / class action — reversal — Smith
Class-action plaintiffs won a major victory in the Third Circuit today, as the court reaffirmed a rule that makes it harder for defendants to moot impending class-action suits by picking off the plaintiffs before they can seek class certification.
First, the facts. An inmate at USP Lewisburg housed in that prison’s “Special Management Unit” alleged that the prison had an unwritten policy of increasing inmate-on-inmate violence by housing hostile SMU inmates together and painfully restraining inmates who refused a hostile cellmate. Specifically (record cites omitted):
In support of this claim, Richardson [the inmate plaintiff] explains how—after seven months of living with a compatible cellmate—corrections staff asked him to “cuff up” on the cell door so that a new inmate could be transferred into his cell. Richardson alleges that this inmate, known among the prison population as “the Prophet,” had attacked over twenty former cellmates. Richardson refused to “cuff up” because he did not want to be placed with “the Prophet.” Corrections staff then asked if Richardson was refusing his new cellmate, and he replied that he was. After taking “the Prophet” away, corrections staff returned thirty minutes later with a Use of Force team and asked Richardson if he would submit to the use of restraints. Richardson complied.
Richardson was then taken down to a laundry room where he was stripped, dressed in paper clothes, and put in “hard” restraints. Next, he was locked in a cell with another prisoner (who was also in hard restraints) and left there for three days before being transferred yet again. All told, Richardson alleges that he was held in hard restraints for nearly a month, was forced to sleep on the floor for much of that time, and frequently was refused both showers and bathroom breaks. Richardson also claims that there have been at least 272 reports of inmate-on-inmate violence at USP Lewisburg between January 2008 and July 2011 and that dozens of other inmates have suffered treatment similar to his as a result of this unwritten practice or policy.
The inmate sued for damages and injunctive relief and sought class certification. The district court denied certification on ascertainability grounds, and the inmate appealed. The prison argued that the claims for injunctive relief were moot because they moved the inmate out of the SMU after he sued and before he sought class certification. The prison also argued that all the named defendants had retired or changed jobs and that this too mooted any claim for injunctive relief.
Today, the Third Circuit reversed, rejecting both of the prison’s mootness arguments in a thorough, 44-page opinion. In the opinion’s most important holding, the court reaffirmed the “picking off” exception to mootness, which bars defendants from dodging class suits by mooting named plaintiffs before they have a fair opportunity to seek class certification and reduces premature certification motions.
Joining Smith were Hardiman and Nygaard. Arguing counsel were Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project for the inmate and Michael Butler for the prison.