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United States v. Erie County

United States District Court, Second Circuit

August 30, 2013

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
ERIE COUNTY, NEW YORK, Defendant.

DECISION AND ORDER

WILLIAM M. SKRETNY, Chief District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

This action was initially commenced by the United States against the Defendant County and several County officials pursuant to the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act of 1980 ("CRIPA"), 42 U.S.C. § 1997 et seq., following a two year investigation into conditions at the Erie County Holding Center ("ECHC") and the Erie County Correctional Facility ("ECCF").

Presently before the Court is the motion of New York Civil Liberties Union ("NYCLU") for an order (1) granting NYCLU leave to intervene in this case; (2) unsealing compliance reports previously filed with this Court; and (3) vacating the standing order permitting future compliance reports to also be filed under seal.

II. BACKGROUND

In September 2009, the United States Department of Justice ("DOJ") commenced the instant action alleging that confinement conditions at ECHC and ECCF violated the federal constitutional rights of inmates incarcerated there. The complaint and the attached "findings" letter detail Defendant's alleged failures in the areas of protection from harm, environmental safety, medical care, mental health care, and suicide prevention. The DOJ sought declaratory and injunctive relief against the Defendant County and the individually named Defendants in their official capacities.

The parties engaged in extensive mediation efforts, which came to partial fruition in June 2010, when the DOJ moved for entry of a partial stipulated settlement agreement which resolved the suicide prevention and related mental health care claims (the "Suicide Prevention Agreement"). (Docket No. 89.) As part of this stipulation, the parties agreed to select a "Joint Compliance Officer, " or "JCO, " with relevant experience in the field of corrections, mental health care, suicide prevention, or medical care, to "file with the Court and provide the Parties with reports describing the steps taken by the Defendants to implement this Stipulated Settlement and evaluate the extent to which the Defendants are in compliance with each substantive provision of the Stipulated Settlement." (Suicide Prevention Agreement § IV(A-F).) These reports were to be issued every four months, after a two week comment period afforded to the parties. (Id. § IV(F).) The Court approved this stipulated partial settlement on June 22, 2010, finding that it satisfied the requirements for prospective relief pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(1)(A). (Docket No. 91.) The parties subsequently stipulated to the selection of Robert L. Trestman, Ph.D., M.D., as the JCO for the Suicide Prevention Agreement. (Docket No. 112.)

Defendants' first motion to dismiss the Complaint was denied on July 9, 2010. (Docket No. 94.) This Court held that CRIPA was not unconstitutional as applied to Defendants. It was further found, however, that despite technical compliance, the original complaint violated the spirit underlying Rules 8 and 10 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and ordered Plaintiff to file an amended complaint within 14 days. Plaintiff complied. (Docket No. 97.) The amended complaint asserted allegations in the following areas of concern: protection from harm (excessive force under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments); medical and mental health care (medical indifference under the Eighth Amendment); and environmental health and safety issues (conditions of confinement under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments). (Docket No. 97.)

In November 2010, Defendant served subpoenas on the Erie County Prisoners' Rights Coalition, the Partnership for the Public Good, Inc., and the League of Women Voters of Buffalo/Niagara, Inc., seeking, among other things, correspondence between these entities and the DOJ. (Docket 214 Exs. A-C.) The present proposed intervenor, NYCLU, represented these parties by bringing a third-party motion to quash these subpoenas in July 2011. (Docket No. 214.) This motion was initially held in abeyance to allow for resolution of pending discovery issues. (Docket No. 219.)

On August 5, 2011, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the amended complaint as against the individually named Defendants on the ground that claims against these individuals in their official capacities were redundant of claims against the Defendant County. (Docket No. 218.) Prior to resolution of this motion, however, the claims were voluntarily dismissed with prejudice as against the individual defendants pursuant to Rule 41(a)(1)(A)(ii) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure on August 18, 2011.[1] (Docket Nos. 223-224.) On this same date, the parties jointly moved for entry of a second Stipulated Order of Dismissal ("Stipulated Order") resolving the remaining protection from harm, provision of medical and mental health treatment, and environmental health and safety claims as against the Defendant County. (Docket No. 225). This stipulation recognized that, without any admission of liability on its part, the County, now the only remaining Defendant, would continue developing and implementing policies, practices, and procedures to address concerns at ECHS and ECCF. (Stipulated Order at § I.)

The Stipulated Order states general goals with respect to each of the areas of concern raised, as well as more specific actions for achieving these goals, such as procedure development, additional training and staffing, and enhanced record keeping. For example, with respect to protection from harm, the Stipulated Order provides that "Defendant agrees to continue to develop and implement policies and procedures to provide prisoners with a safe and secure environment and continue to take all reasonable steps to protect them from harm." (Stipulated Order, § III(A).) More specific actions in support of this general goal include "film[ing] all uses of force where the [Quick Entry Team] is deployed" and "maintain[ing] a log of all video footage of uses of force." (Id. §III(A)(3)(b).)

In order to monitor compliance, the parties agreed upon two Technical Compliance Consultants ("TCCs") to independently verify representations by Defendant regarding progress toward compliance with the stipulated goals. (Stipulated Order § VI(A), (I)(5).) The parties chose Jeffrey Metzner, M.D., as TCC for the mental health provisions of the current order as well as all responsibilities previously assigned the JCO for the Suicide Prevention Agreement. (Id. § VI(A).) To that end, the Suicide Prevention agreement was incorporated into the 2011 Stipulated Order, except to the extent the former was modified by the latter. (Id. § III(C)(1).) The parties further agreed on Ronald Shansky, M.D., as TCC for the medical provisions of the Stipulated Order. (Id.) The Stipulated Order requires the TCCS to "file with the Court and provide the Parties with reports describing the steps taken by Defendant to implement this Stipulated Order and evaluate the extent to which Defendant has successfully implemented each substantive provision of the Stipulated Order" every six months, unless otherwise agreed to by the parties in writing. (Stipulated Order § (VI(I)(1).) These reports are required to be submitted to the parties at least two weeks prior to final issuance in order to allow for written comments to be made by either party, with a copy provided to the other. (Stipulated Order § VI(I)(2).)

The Stipulated Order requires that the TCC reports "will be written with due regard for the privacy interests of individual inmates and staff." (Stipulated Order § VI(I)(2).) Further, although Defendant is not permitted to "assert physician/patient or psychotherapist/patient privileges with respect to the monitoring of the Stipulated Order by the United States and the TCC, " the parties agreed to "treat all personally identifiable information obtained pursuant to this Stipulated Order as confidential." (Stipulated Order § VI(M).) This stipulation further provides that "[t]he TCC is not a State/County or local agency or an agent thereof, and accordingly the records maintained by the TCC will not be deemed public records subject to public inspection." (Stipulated Order § VI(G).) Additionally, "[n]o report issued pursuant to this Stipulated Order shall be subject to disclosure nor admissible in any proceeding other than the proceeding related to the enforcement of this Stipulated Order." (Stipulated Order § VI(H).)

In addition to the TCC's compliance reports, Defendant is also required to:

submit semiannual compliance reports to the United States and the TCC, the first of which will be filed within six (6) months of the Effective Date of this Stipulated Order. Thereafter, the semiannual reports will be filed 15 days after the termination of each six-month period until the Stipulated Order is terminated.
[] Each compliance report will describe the actions Defendant has taken during the reporting period to implement this Stipulated Order and will make specific reference to the Stipulated Order provisions being implemented. Such reports shall not be subject to disclosure nor admissible in any other proceeding other than a proceeding related to the enforcement of this Stipulated Order.

(Stipulated Order § V(A-B).) Defendant also agreed to "maintain sufficient records to document that the provisions of this Stipulated Order are being properly implemented" and timely provide copies of the same to the DOJ. (Id. § V(D).) "For example, Defendant will maintain all records or other documents that demonstrate that the County has taken such actions as described in its compliance reports (e.g., census summaries, policies, procedures, protocols, training materials, investigations, and incident reports)." (Id.) The parties agreed that:

Any document provided to a TCC or [Plaintiff] by the County (and any information contained therein) shall not be re-disclosed to any third party unless required by law or authorized by the Court. To the extent that the United States discloses any such document in response to a FOIA request, it will give the County Attorney reasonable written notice of such disclosure. The TCC and the DOJ shall protect confidential or personal privacy information, including but not limited to, protected health information, and shall adhere to all federal, state and local laws, rules or regulations precluding the disclosure of such information.

(Stipulated Order § V(H).)

In an order entered August 26, 2011, this Court determined that the Stipulated Order satisfied the requirements for prospective relief under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(1)(A), inasmuch as it "is narrowly drawn, and extends no further than is necessary and is the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violations of the federal rights at issue." (Docket No. 227.) The Court ordered that the case be dismissed and closed, although jurisdiction over the matter would be retained until the substance of the terms of the Stipulated Order of Dismissal was fulfilled, "and either party may move to reopen this case at any time should issues requiring this Court's intervention arise." (Id.; see Stipulated Order § VII(A-B) (agreeing on this Court's continued jurisdiction for enforcement purposes).)

At the conclusion of the first six-month period in February 2012, Defendant moved to file the first reports of the TCCs, as well as the previously unfiled Joint Compliance Reports resulting from the initial Suicide Prevention Agreement and any future TCC reports, under seal. (Docket No. 231.) Defendant relied on the provisions in both the Suicide Prevention Agreement and the Stipulated Order stating that neither a TCC nor a JCO was "a State/County or local agency or an agent thereof, and accordingly the records maintained by the TCC will not be deemed public records subject to public inspection." (Docket No. 232 ¶¶ 16-17, 23-25.) The DOJ affirmatively stated that it was not opposing the motion to seal, following which this Court granted the motion. (Docket Nos. 234, 235.) In March 2012, Defendant moved this Court to "expand" the prior order to also allow the filing of Defendant's semiannual compliance reports to the TCCs and the DOJ under seal. (Docket No. 237.) The DOJ again assented, and the Court granted the motion on March 29, 2012. (Docket Nos. 239, 240.)

In June 2012, proposed intervenor NYCLU filed the present motion to unseal the previously filed compliance reports and vacate the standing ...


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