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Benjamin v. Shriro

October 29, 2009

JAMES BENJAMIN, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DORA SHRIRO,*FN1 ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Harold Baer, Jr., United States District Judge

OPINION & ORDER

This case, initially brought in 1975 as a class action lawsuit against the City of New York on behalf of pretrial detainees at Riker's Island, has necessitated numerous and detailed orders to regulate the conditions in the New York City jails and to assure thatdetainees' constitutional rights aremaintained during their confinement. One aspect of these orders has as its goal the protection of the health and welfare of inmates who, by medical necessity, are designated as particularly sensitive to conditions of high heat ("Heat-Sensitive Inmates"). Specifically, three orders govern the treatment of Heat Sensitive Inmates: Transmission of Data Concerning Heat Sensitive Prisoners to the Office of Compliance Consultants and Housing of Heat Sensitive Prisoners During Air-Conditioning Failures, dated May 31, 2007 ("May 2007 Heat Order"); Repair of Air Conditioning Units, dated May 31, 2007 ("A/C Order"); and Heat Conditions, dated August 11, 2008 ("August 2008 Order") (collectively, "Heat Orders"). The Heat Orders govern the treatment of Heat-Sensitive Inmates during the summer's hottest days, when temperatures reach 85§F and above.

Defendants claim that the Department of Corrections ("DOC") has achieved substantial compliance with its obligations under the Heat Orders and accordingly moves to terminate the Heat Orders pursuant to the Prison Rights Litigation Act ("PLRA"), 18 U.S.C. § 3626(b)(1)(i). Plaintiffs oppose Defendants' motion and request additional relief to remedy what it characterizes as continuing violations of constitutional rights. After having monitored DOC's compliance with the Heat Orders during the 2008 Heat Season, the Office of Compliance Consultants ("OCC") suggests that if terminated, certain aspects of DOC's obligations be clarified to further DOC's continued compliance going forward. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motion to terminate the Heat Orders is granted, with the caveat that Defendants' compliance willbe revisited one year hence. Depending on the findings at that time, the Court may reinstate any provision that meets the needs-narrowness-intrusiveness test of the PLRA. Further, this order clarifiesDOC's obligations with respect to thetransfer and housing of Heat-Sensitive Inmates. Plaintiffs' request for further relief is denied.

I. BACKGROUND

The history of this case and of the Benjamin consent decrees has been thoroughly summarized in recent opinions of this Court and need not be reiterated in much detail here.*fn2

Suffice it to say that in 2000, following twenty-five years of Court oversight, Defendants moved to terminate the environmental health provisions of the consent decrees. After several days of evidentiary hearings, in 2001 the Court partially granted Defendants' termination motion. See Benjamin v. Fraser, 161 F. Supp. 2d 151 (S.D.N.Y. 2001); Benjamin v. Fraser, 75 Civ. 3073 (HB), 2001 WL 282705 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 22, 2001). The Environmental Order, issued April 26, 2001, provided prospective relief for the constitutional violations that remained. Upon the parties' motions for reconsideration, this Court made additional, provision-by-provision determinations that each provisionwas necessary, narrowly drawn, and no more intrusive than necessary to correct the violation of a federal right, as required under the PLRA. See Benjamin v. Fraser, 156 F. Supp. 2d 333 (S.D.N.Y. 2001). The Second Circuit affirmed, except with regard to certain provisions that are not relevant here. See Benjamin v. Fraser, 343 F.3d 35 (2d Cir. 2003).

A. Predecessors to the Heat Orders

On July 26, 2004, as a result of the expert report of Dr. Susi Vasallo and other information supplied by the parties and OCC, the Court entered its first heatorder that addressed the potential risk to certain inmates from extreme temperature conditions and required DOC to take precautions when the outside temperature reached 85§F. Although the July 2004 Order provided for automatic termination after the following heat season, at DOC's behest, the order subsequently was amended by an order dated December 22, 2004 that, among other things, listed the specific medical conditions and medications that would categorizean inmate as"heat-sensitive" and thus entitled to protection. The life of theOrder wassubsequently extended several times, and ultimately was extended until such time as this Court decides that termination is appropriate. Id. at *3. On May 31, 2006, the Court issued an order (the "May 2006 Heat Order"), that found Defendants to be non-compliantwith the December 2004 Order. The May 2006 Heat Order required, among other things, that DOC place any Heat-Sensitive Inmate in air-conditioned housing "immediately"when the air temperature exceeds 85§F at the time of the inmate's medical intake exam or is forecast to do so within forty-eight hours thereafter. Otherwise, the Order required DOC to provide air-conditioned housing to detainees denominatedHeat-Sensitive Inmates "as soon as possible" after the temperature reaches 85§F, and defined the timeframes within which such transfer was required. Benjamin, No. 75 Civ. 3073, Order (S.D.N.Y. May 31, 2006) ¶ 2(a)-(b).

B. The Heat Orders

Following a report from OCC that found a failure onDefendants' part to provide necessary documentation in a timely manner, the Court issued the May 2007 Heat Order. This Order provided that on any day when the air temperature exceeds 85§F or is forecast to do so within the following forty-eight hours, Defendants willimmediately remove heat-sensitive inmates who had beenplaced in unitswhere the air-conditioning failed and immediately relocate such heat-sensitive inmates to housing areas with working air-conditioning. The Order also imposes on Defendants fines for non-compliance.

The A/C Orderwas issued in response to Defendants' advice tothe Court that some air-conditioning units were not in working order. Accordingly, the Court ordered Defendants to "inspect, test, repair and replace to working order all housing area air-conditioning units no later than June 16, 2007" and to "thereafter maintain all air-conditioning units in working order and commence repair or replacement efforts immediately upon the failure of a housing area air-conditioning unit that breaks down." The A/C Order also set forth a five-day timeline for the repair of failed air-conditioning units and provided for sanctions based on any failure by Defendants to repair units within five days of any malfunction.

After the 2007 Heat Season, OCC submitted a report that Defendants' compliance with the then-existing heat orders was 52%. Nonetheless, Defendants moved to terminate the Heat Orders, claiming substantial compliance based on their different calculations that they claimed showed better compliance. On June 18, 2008, based in part on OCC's reports, and in part on the parties' disagreements on fundamental aspects required to assess compliance such as the number of Heat-Sensitive Inmates and problems with reporting and miscommunications among the parties, the Court found sufficient evidence of a current and ongoing violation of a federal right for which prospective relief in the form of the Heat Orders remained necessary. Moreover, the Court noted Defendants' assertions that on extreme high-heat days, certain of their air-conditioning units are too weak to cool the inside temperature below 80§F. As a consequence, Idenied Defendants' motion to terminate the Heat Orders "until this Court, hopefully not in the too distant future, finds termination proper." Id. at *14.

In furtherance of the June 18, 2008 Opinion, the Court entered the August 2008 Heat Order, which modified and replaced the May 2006 Heat Order and is one of the orders that is the subject of Defendants' instant motion. The most salient provisions of the August 2008 Heat Order are as follows:

* Where outside temperatures exceed 85§F at the time of the intake exam or are forecast to do so within 48 hours thereafter, DOC is required immediately to place the Heat-Sensitive Inmate in air-conditioned housing, and otherwise DOC is to provide air-conditioned housing to Heat-Sensitive Inmates "as soon as possible" after the temperature reaches 85§F. (¶ 2(a)-(b)).

* Mentally competent Heat-sensitive Inmates may refuse or waive placement in air-conditioned housing pursuant to a specified informed-consent procedure. (¶ 3).

* While DOC is not required to provide air-conditioned housing to punitive segregation detainees where it determines that security or safety precludes such placement, it is required, where it is unable to provide air-conditioned housing to such detainees, to increase monitoring, provide prompt medical attention when necessary, and provide extra water and ice to all detainees at every meal. (¶ 6).

* OCC is to monitor Defendants' compliance with the requirements of the Order, and certain procedures were set forth to regularize documentation and tracking of Heat-Sensitive Inmates and to relay such documentation to OCC. (¶ 9).

* The Order specified that it would not terminate automatically, but rather would continue "unless the OCC finds no evidence of current and ongoing constitutional violations of Plaintiffs' federal rights," which was to be assessed ...


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