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United States v. Erie County

July 9, 2010

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ERIE COUNTY, NY, CHRIS COLLINS, COUNTY EXECUTIVE, ANTHONY BILLITTIER, IV, M.D. COUNTY HEALTH COMMISSIONER, TIMOTHY B. HOWARD, ERIE COUNTY SHERIFF, RICHARD T. DONOVAN, ERIE COUNTY UNDERSHERIFF, ROBERT KOCH, SUPERINTENDENT ADMINISTRATIVE SERVICES DIVISION, JAIL MANAGEMENT DIVISION, BARBARA LEARY, FIRST DEPUTY SUPERINTENDENT, ERIE COUNTY HOLDING CENTER, DONALD LIVINGSTON, FIRST DEPUTY SUPERINTENDENT, ERIE COUNTY CORRECTIONAL FACILITY, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William M. Skretny Chief Judge United States District Court

DECISION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

In November 2007, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice began investigating conditions at the Erie County Holding Center ("ECHC") and Erie County Correctional Facility ("ECCF") (collectively, "the facilities").

At the end of the two-year investigation, the Justice Department notified Erie County through a "Findings Letter" that, in its view, confinement conditions at the facilities violated the federal constitutional rights of inmates incarcerated there. In particular, the Justice Department maintained that due to certain practices - including the failure to provide protection from physical and sexual abuse, failure to provide adequate medical and mental health care, and failure to provide safe and sanitary environmental conditions - Erie County was not adequately protecting inmates from serious harm or the risk of serious harm.

Pre-suit efforts to resolve these concerns failed. Consequently, on September 30, 2009, the Justice Department sued Erie County and various county officials pursuant to the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act of 1980 ("CRIPA"), 42 U.S.C. § 1997, et seq. The Justice Department seeks to enjoin Defendants from depriving incarcerated individuals of their constitutional rights, privileges, and immunities.

On October 21, 2009, Defendants moved to dismiss the Justice Department's complaint.*fn1 While that motion was pending, the Justice Department moved for pre-answer, expedited discovery related to suicide prevention protocols at the ECHC. This Court granted that motion on March 6, 2010, and indicated at that time that Defendants' Motion to Dismiss would be denied in a decision to follow. The parties then engaged in substantial mediation efforts, culminating in several lengthy, in-person sessions in Buffalo, NY, during the week of May 17, 2010. Discussions continued, and on June 22, 2010, this Court approved the parties' settlement concerning suicide prevention and related mental health issues.*fn2

For the reasons stated below, this Court finds that the CRIPA is not unconstitutional as applied to Defendants and that the Justice Department's complaint, although technically compliant with the federal rules, must be amended to clarify the allegations against each defendant. Defendants' Motion to Dismiss is denied.

II. BACKGROUND

A. CRIPA

The CRIPA authorizes the United States to seek injunctive relief against any state, political subdivision of a state, or official, employee, or agent thereof, whenever the Attorney General has reasonable cause to believe that such party is subjecting institutionalized persons to "grievous harm" caused by "egregious or flagrant conditions which deprive [them] of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States," and that the deprivation is pursuant to "a pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of such rights, privileges, or immunities." 42 U.S.C. § 1997a (a);*fn3 Messier v. Southbury Training Sch., 916 F.Supp. 133, 137 (D.Conn. 1996).

To remedy unlawful deprivations, the Attorney General may seek "such equitable relief as may be appropriate to insure the minimum corrective measures necessary to insure the full enjoyment of such rights, privileges, or immunities." Id. For persons institutionalized in "a jail, prison, or other correctional facility," such as here, equitable relief is available to remedy only those conditions that deprive them of their rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the federal Constitution. 42 U.S.C. §§ 1997 (1)(A) and (B)(ii); 42 U.S.C. § 1997a (a).

At the time a CRIPA suit is brought, the Attorney General must personally certify to the court that, at least 49 calendar days before bringing suit, he notified the Governor or other appropriate state official in writing of (1) the alleged unconstitutional conditions and pattern or practice of resistance; (2) the facts supporting those allegations, including the relevant dates or time period, the identity of all persons reasonably suspected of being involved in causing the conditions and pattern or practice; and (3) the date the Attorney General first learned of the allegations. See 42 U.S.C. § 1997b (a)(1).

The statute also requires that the Attorney General set forth his pre-litigation efforts at resolving the matter. The Attorney General must certify that he notified the Governor or other appropriate state official in writing that he intended to start an investigation of an institution and that he provided this notice seven days before beginning the investigation. See 42 U.S.C. § 1997b (a)(2).

The Attorney General must also certify that

(A) the Attorney General has made a reasonable good faith effort to consult with the Governor or chief executive officer and attorney general or chief legal officer of the appropriate State or political subdivision and the director of the institution, or their designees, regarding financial, technical, or other assistance which may be available from the United States and which the Attorney General believes may assist in the correction of such conditions and pattern or practice of resistance;

(B) the Attorney General has encouraged the appropriate officials to correct the alleged conditions and pattern or practice of resistance through informal methods of conference, conciliation and persuasion, including, to the extent feasible, discussion of the possible costs and fiscal impacts of alternative minimum corrective measures, and it is the Attorney General's opinion that reasonable efforts at voluntary correction have not succeeded; and

(C) the Attorney General is satisfied that the appropriate officials have had a reasonable time to take appropriate action to correct such conditions and pattern or practice, taking into consideration the time required to remodel or make necessary changes in physical facilities or relocate residents, reasonable legal or procedural requirements, the urgency of the need to correct such conditions, and other circumstances involved in correcting such conditions[.] 42 U.S.C. § 1997b (a)(2)(A)-(C).

Finally, the Attorney General must certify that he believes that filing suit under CRIPA "is of general public importance and will materially further the vindication of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States." 42 U.S.C. § 1997b (a)(3).

The Attorney General's certification is final and not subject to judicial review. United States v. State of New York, 690 F.Supp. 1201, 1204 (W.D.N.Y. 1988); see also McDonald v. Rivera, No. 9:06-CV-410, 2008 WL 268345, at *10 (N.D.N.Y. Jan. 30, 2008).

B. The Justice Department's Complaint

The Justice Department alleges that Defendants have been deliberately indifferent to the health and safety of ECHC and ECCF inmates, in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, by repeatedly disregarding known or serious risks of harm both at the ECHC, which houses pre-trial detainees, and the ECCF, which houses convicted individuals. (Complaint, ¶¶ 18-20, 28.)

The allegations in the complaint are further detailed in two attachments to it - the Attorney General's certification (described above) and the "Findings Letter" that the Justice Department sent to the County Executive of Erie County. See Cortec Indus., Inc. v. Sum Holding L.P., 949 F.2d 42, 47-48 (2d Cir. 1991); Brass v. Am. Firm Techs., Inc., 987 F.2d 142, 150 (2d Cir. 1993); Fed. R. Civ. P. 10(c). For purposes of Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, the factual allegations in these documents are accepted as true. See Goldstein v. Pataki, 516 F.3d 50, 56 (2d Cir. 2008).

The Justice Department alleges a number of failures in the operation of the facilities. First, it alleges that Defendants have repeatedly failed to prevent staff from inflicting serious physical and sexual abuse on inmates and that these failures continue to exist, even in the face of multiple incidents in which inmates have been assaulted. (Complaint, ¶ 21 (a) and (b).)

Second, it alleges that Defendants have repeatedly failed to protect inmates from serious harm inflicted by other inmates, despite multiple instances of inmate-on-inmate assault. (Complaint, ¶ 22.) These failures include (1) failing to protect vulnerable or at-risk inmates from physical abuse; (2) failing to protect vulnerable inmates from sexual abuse by other inmates; and (3) failing to implement an inmate classification system that adequately assesses the risk factors for inmate-on-inmate violence. (Complaint, ¶ 23 (a)--(c).)

Third, the Justice Department alleges that Defendants fail to provide adequate mental health and medical services to inmates with known or obvious serious mental health and medical needs. (Complaint, ¶ 23.) In particular, Defendants allegedly provide inadequate suicide prevention and mental health care, inadequate management of medical services and treatment, inadequate administration of medication, and inadequate infection control. (Complaint, ¶ 23(a)--(d).)

Finally, the Justice Department maintains that the physical environment at the ECHC poses an unreasonable risk of serious harm to inmates' health and safety. (Complaint, ¶ 24.) It further alleges that despite known and obvious risks, Defendants have failed to correct facility maintenance problems that pose a risk of harm to the safety of inmates and staff within the facility and its exterior. (Complaint, ¶ 24.)

Each of these allegations is also detailed in the 50-page Findings Letter attached to the Complaint, which is further discussed below.

III. DISCUSSION

Defendants seek dismissal of the Justice Department's complaint on three grounds. First, they argue that the CRIPA is unconstitutional as applied. Second, they argue that the form of the complaint violates ...


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