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Barnes v. Dist. of Columbia

March 26, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Royce C. Lamberth United States District Judge


This is a case in which history insists on repeating itself. The subject matter is virtually identical to a prior case before this Court, the arguments are the same, even the same procedural defaults have been made. If the past is prologue, then the result here must be predictable. Before the Court is the District of Columbia's Motion [14] to Dismiss, or in the alternative, its Motion [15] for Summary Judgment, and its Motion [26] for an extension of time to respond to plaintiffs' motion for class certification. As explained more fully below, all of these motions are DENIED, and the plaintiffs' Motion [7] for Class Certification is GRANTED, with the result that the Court certifies this action as a hybrid class action. Finally, plaintiffs' Motions [24 & 30] for Discovery are DENIED as moot.

I. Background

This case is directly linked to one that previously came before this Court, Bynum v. District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 02-956 (RCL). In that case the Court certified a class of some 4,000 former prisoners of the District of Columbia's Department of Corrections ("D.O.C.") who alleged they had been detained by D.O.C. beyond the point at which their release had been ordered, for periods ranging from an extra day to many days or even months on end. Also certified was a class of former prisoners who alleged that they were subjected to strip searches after their release had been ordered. The Court certified an "Overdetention Class" and a "Strip Search Class" representing both types of claimants, which overlapped a great deal, and denied motions by the District to dismiss and for summary judgment. The parties reached a settlement of that case in August of 2005, which the Court approved in January, 2006.

The problem in Bynum, as alleged by plaintiffs in that case and this one,was that "court releases," inmates who were entitled to release after a court appearance, were typically taken from court to the Central Detention Facility ("D.C. Jail") or the Correctional Treatment Facility ("CTF") to await the administrative processing of their release, often called "out-processing."*fn1

This process, which apparently involves ministerial tasks such as acquiring the release order, checking a prisoner's record to make sure there was no other warrant or order that would justify continued detention, retrieving a prisoner's personal property, and the like. The class members in Bynum were all held at least past midnight on the day their release was ordered, and frequently one day of overdetention turned into two, or a week, or even more. Because these prisoners were returned to the general population while they awaited outprocessing, they were subjected to strip searches, sometimes multiple times, as it appears that the D.O.C. policy is to strip search everyone who enters the general population from outside. See Second Amended Complaint ("2AC") at ¶¶ 4, 13 [12]; Defendant's Mem. in Support of Motion to Dismiss [14] at 4.

In August of 2005, as Bynum neared settlement, D.O.C. adopted a policy of diverting in-custody defendants who had been ordered released or who were otherwise entitled to release to a holding facility on the grounds of D.C. General Hospital. 2AC ¶ 40. D.O.C. administered outprocessing there instead of at D.C. Jail or the CTF, which meant that inmates were not subjected to strip searches absent some individualized suspicion. Id. But sometime around December 2005, the cracks in this system began to widen, with more and more inmates who were entitled to release slipping through and being returned to D.C. Jail or the CTF. Once there, they encountered the same dance with D.O.C. that arose in Bynum: inmates entitled to release were not released until the next day, or sometimes days or even weeks later, and inmates who were entitled to release were forced to undergo strip searches. The named plaintiffs -- who allege they were detained for anywhere from four to 29 days after their release dates -- identify almost forty other individuals who were overdetained, strip searched, or both, and allege there are potentially hundreds of other inmates who were subjected to the same treatment.*fn2

According to plaintiffs, the recurrence of the overdetention and strip search issues is due to many factors, including computer problems and "the deliberate indifference of the acting warden Patricia Britton and the acting director Elwood York and the resignation of competent managers from the Records Office and the failure to replace them." 2AC ¶ 42. They also allege that D.O.C. staff reported the problems up the chain of command, but that superiors "are disregarding the problem and acquiescing in the current overdetention and strip search problem." 2AC ¶¶ 43, 44.

Plaintiffs brought this suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the overdetention violates the Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Amendments, while the strip searches violate the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. 2AC ¶¶ 3, 4. They allege that District administrators and policymakers were deliberately indifferent to the rights of inmates while administering the maintenance of inmate records and in imposing the strip search policy. They also allege that it is the practice and custom of the District to overdetain inmates. Id. ¶¶ 79-82. Plaintiffs seek damages and declaratory and injunctive relief.

II. Motion to Dismiss

A. Alternative Motion for Summary Judgment

The District has moved [14] to dismiss for failure to state a claim, or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. [15] The decision of whether to convert a motion to dismiss to one for summary judgment rests in the discretion of the court. The only extraneous matter the District submitted was an affidavit from a D.O.C. employee which, as plaintiffs point out, suffers from several evidentiary deficiencies. More importantly, this case is at far too early of a state for summary judgment to be appropriate. There has been no discovery and the record is thin.

In Bynum summary judgment was rejected where, as here, "it would be premature to consider a motion for summary judgment when the discovery process, which has apparently not even commenced, might yield additional facts that would guide the Court's decision as to the merits of plaintiffs' strip search claims." Bynum v. District of Columbia, 215 F.R.D. 1, 4 (D.D.C. 2003). As then, it is still the general rule that "decision by summary judgment is disfavored when additional development of facts might illuminate the issues of law requiring decision." Nixon v. Freeman,670 F.2d 346, 362 (D.C. Cir. 1982). Nearly every issue in this case would benefit from illumination via the discovery process: the causes for and extent of delayed release, the nature of the strip search policy, where and with whom these problems originated, and a host of other factors the Court must consider are all dependent on facts that have not been developed. For this reason the Court will not treat the District's motion as one for summary judgment, but rather as a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, and the Motion [15] for Summary Judgment is DENIED.

B. Standard on 12(b)(6) Motion

When a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is at hand, plaintiffs' factual allegations are presumed true and construed liberally in their favor. See Swierkiewicz v. Sonoma N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 511-14 (2002), Krieger v. Fadely, 211 F.3d 134, 136 (D.C. Cir. 2000), Alexander v. FBI, 971 F.Supp. 603, 608 (D.D.C. 1997). "The complaint should be dismissed only if it appears beyond doubt that, under any reasonable pleading, plaintiffs will be unable to prove any set of facts that would justify relief." Bynum v. District of Columbia, 257 F.Supp. 2d 1, 1 (D.D.C. 2002).

Plaintiffs bring their claims under § 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which creates liability for "[e]very person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws." 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Supreme Court laid out the standard for municipal liability under § 1983 in Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978): "Local governing bodies . . . can be sued directly under § 1983 for monetary, declaratory, or injunctive relief where, as here, the action that is alleged to be unconstitutional implements or executes a policy statement, ordinance, regulation, or decision officially adopted and promulgated by that body's officers," which can include "constitutional deprivations visited pursuant to governmental 'custom' even though such a custom has not received formal approval through the body's official decisionmaking channels." Id. at 690; see also Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 167-68 (1970) (discussing liability predicated on municipal "custom" or practice).

Thus "the plaintiff must prove that the District of Columbia has a 'custom or practice that is the moving force behind the alleged . . . violations.'" Zearley v. Ackerman, 116 F.Supp. 2d 109, 114 (D.D.C. 2000) (quoting Walker v. District of Columbia, 969 F.Supp. 794, 797 (D.D.C. 1997)). "Although Monell allows claims based upon a well-settled municipal custom, plaintiff must 'show fault on the part of the city based on a course its policymakers consciously chose to pursue.'" Triplett v. District of Columbia,108 F.3d 1450, 1453 (D.C. Cir. 1997) (internal citation omitted) (quoting Carter v. District of Columbia, 795 F.2d 116, 122 (D.C. Cir. 1986). As set forth by the Court of Appeals for this Circuit:

The court must determine whether plaintiff has alleged an 'affirmative link,' such that a municipal policy was the 'moving force' behind the constitutional violation. There are a number of ways in which a 'policy' can be set by a municipality to cause it to be liable under § 1983: the explicit setting of a policy by the government that violates the Constitution, the action of a policy maker within the government, the adoption through a knowing failure to act by a policy maker of actions by his subordinates that are so consistent that they have become 'custom,' or the failure of the government to respond to a need (for example, training of employees) in such a manner as to show 'deliberate indifference' to the risk that not addressing the need will result in constitutional violations.

Baker v. District of Columbia, 326 F.3d 1302, 1306-07 (D.C. Cir. 2003) (internal citations omitted).

C. Application to Plaintiffs' Claims

1. Overdetention

Plaintiffs allege that the District's conduct amounts to a policy of deliberate indifference to their constitutional rights when it comes to processing the release of court-returned inmates, resulting in inmates being detained past the day on which they are entitled to release, and sometimes much longer. There is a substantial body of law in support of the proposition that a plaintiff who alleges overdetention, sometimes even for a very short period, states a claim for constitutional violations. See, e.g., Berry v. Baca, 379 F.3d 764 (9th Cir. 2004); Lewis v. O'Grady, 853 F.2d 136 (7th Cir. 1988); Jones v. Cochran, 1994 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20625 ...

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