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Gumm v. Jacobs

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Macon Division

May 6, 2019

BENJAMIN FORD et al., Defendants.



         The parties reached and the Court preliminarily approved, pursuant to Rule 23(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a class action Settlement Agreement resolving the claims for injunctive and declaratory relief in this case. (See Preliminary Approval Order (Doc. 210).) After granting preliminary certification of the settlement class, appointing Plaintiffs' counsel as class counsel, granting preliminary approval of the Settlement Agreement, and approving a process for giving notice to the class, the Court received objections and comments from class members and held a final fairness hearing on April 30, 2019. For the reasons below, and those set forth in the Court's preliminary approval order, the Court now grants final certification of the settlement class and final approval of the Settlement Agreement, and, at the joint request of the parties, adopts the Settlement Agreement by incorporation as the order of the Court.


         Plaintiff Timothy Gumm brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 challenging conditions and practices at the Special Management Unit (“SMU”) at Georgia Diagnostic & Classification Prison (“Georgia Diagnostic”). (Doc. 1.) The Court appointed attorney Sarah Geraghty of the Southern Center for Human Rights to represent Plaintiff Gumm. (Doc. 70.) After the parties engaged in several months of discovery, Plaintiff Gumm filed an amended complaint in March 2017 (Doc. 73), asserting claims for declaratory and injunctive relief on behalf of a putative class of all prisoners who are or will be held in the SMU. The class claims were brought under the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause and Eighth Amendment's Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause. The complaint alleged that confinement in the SMU created a substantial risk of serious harm to prisoners, and that prisoners were held in the SMU for years without meaningful procedural safeguards. The complaint sought classwide injunctive relief to remedy unconstitutional review procedures and conditions of confinement in the SMU. In May 2018, Gumm filed a further amended complaint naming SMU prisoners Robert Watkins and Johnny Mack Brown as additional plaintiffs and class representatives. (Doc. 140.) Plaintiff Watkins is presently assigned to the SMU. Plaintiff Brown was subsequently transferred to the Georgia Diagnostic STEP Unit and has been voluntarily dismissed from this action. (Docs. 202; 209.)

         The parties engaged in a lengthy discovery process, as well as settlement discussions over the course of approximately 18 months. The negotiations were conducted at arm's length by parties and attorneys familiar with the evidence. In December 2018, the parties reached an agreement to certify a settlement class and settle the injunctive and declaratory relief claims raised in this case. (Doc. 207-1.) This agreement provides SMU prisoners four hours per day of out-of-cell time, improved conditions, guidelines for prisoners with mental illness, more robust procedural safeguards, and limits on who may be assigned to the SMU and the duration that they may be held there.


         In weighing final approval of a class settlement, the Court's role is to determine whether the settlement, taken as a whole, is “fair, adequate and reasonable and . . . not the product of collusion between the parties.” Bennett v. Behring Corp., 737 F.2d 982, 986 (11th Cir. 1984) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). The factors the Court must consider are set forth in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(e)(2). All but one of these factors-opposition to the settlement-were addressed in the Court's preliminary approval order; that analysis will not be repeated here. (See Doc. 210 at 5-14.) However, the Court will expand on its previous discussion of six issues relevant to the propriety of approval: (1) the Settlement Agreement's compliance with the requirements of the Prison Litigation Reform Act; (2) the adequacy of notice to class members; (3) the objections and comments submitted by class members; (4) the views of class counsel; (5) the proposed attorneys' fee award, see Rule 23(e)(2)(C)(iii), and agreements required to be identified under Rule 23(e)(3), see Rule 23(e)(2)(C)(iv); and finally, (6) the views of the Court.

         The Court also concludes that the settlement class preliminarily certified should be finally certified for settlement purposes under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(2), for the reasons set forth in the Court's preliminary approval order. (See Doc. 210 at 3-5.) This class is defined as “all persons who are or in the future will be assigned to the facility currently known as the Special Management Unit at Georgia Diagnostic & Classification Prison, or who are or in the future will be assigned to the Tier III Program.”

         A. Compliance of the Settlement Agreement with the PLRA's Need-Narrowness-Intrusiveness Requirements

         The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) generally mandates that prospective relief orders in prison conditions cases “shall extend no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right of a particular plaintiff or plaintiffs, ” and requires that courts entering them “find[] that such relief is narrowly drawn, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right, and is the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right.” 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(1)(A); see also 18 U.S.C. § 3626(c)(1) (applying these requirements to consent decrees). Together, these requirements are commonly referred to as the “need-narrowness-intrusiveness” requirements.

         In Cason v. Seckinger, the Eleventh Circuit addressed the sort of findings courts are required to make with respect to the need-narrowness-intrusiveness requirements where the parties dispute whether these requirements are met. 231 F.3d 777 (11th Cir. 2000). Cason involved a contested motion by defendant prison officials to terminate a consent order under 18 U.S.C. § 3626(b), which provides a right to terminate prospective relief in certain circumstances if the need-narrowness-intrusiveness requirements are not satisfied. Cason, 231 F.3d at 781; see 18 U.S.C. § 3626(b)(3) (providing that prospective relief “shall not terminate if the court makes written findings based on the record that prospective relief remains necessary to correct a current and ongoing violation of the Federal right, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right, and that the prospective relief is narrowly drawn and the least intrusive means to correct the violation”). The Cason panel read § 3626(b)(3) as generally “requiring particularized findings, on a provision-by-provision basis, that each requirement imposed by the consent decrees satisfies the need-narrowness-intrusiveness criteria.” 231 F.3d at 785. Where the parties disagree on whether those criteria are satisfied, “[i]t is not enough to simply state in conclusory fashion that the requirements of the consent decrees satisfy those criteria. Particularized findings, analysis, and explanations should be made as to the application of each criteria to each requirement imposed by the consent decrees.”[1] Id.

         Cason went on to recognize, however, that the provision-by-provision, particularized-finding requirement does not apply where the parties have agreed that the PLRA's need-narrowness-intrusiveness requirements are satisfied. See Cason, 231 F.3d at 785 n. 8. Specifically, a district court may rely on the parties' “concessions” and “stipulations” concerning those criteria, just as it would any other undisputed facts. Id. Thus, when defendants expressly concede that the PLRA's need-narrowness-intrusiveness requirements are met, the Court need not enter the particularized findings that are otherwise required. See Id. (“Of course, we do not mean to suggest that the district court must conduct an evidentiary hearing about or enter particularized findings concerning any facts or factors about which there is not dispute. The parties are free to make any concessions or enter into any stipulations they deem appropriate.”). Here, Defendants have not only consented to entry of the Settlement Agreement as an order but have also expressly stipulated (Doc. 207 at 15-16; 207-1 at 6) that the Settlement Agreement satisfies the various requirements of the PLRA, including the need-narrowness-intrusiveness requirements.[2] Therefore, particularized findings are not required. See Dunn v. Dunn, 318 F.R.D. 652, 682 (M.D. Ala. 2016); Laube v. Campbell, 333 F.Supp.2d 1234, 1239 (M.D. Ala. 2004); see also Martinez v. Maketa, 2011 WL 2222129, at *1 (D. Colo. June 7, 2011) (entering a prospective relief order after observing that “Plaintiffs and Defendant jointly stipulate that the Court should make the findings required for prospective relief under 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(1)(A)”); cf. Thomas v. Bryant, 614 F.3d 1288, 1323 & n.33 (11th Cir. 2010) (holding defendant prison officials could waive challenge to district court's failure to make particularized findings by failing to raise issue in district court or on appeal).

         The Court has nevertheless conducted an independent review of the record in this case and assessed the core terms of the Settlement Agreement in light of that record. The Court independently finds that the provisions of the Settlement Agreement satisfy the PLRA's requirements for the following additional reasons.

         1. Settlement Terms

         Plaintiffs challenged the conditions of confinement in the SMU and the procedures that kept them there. (Doc. 140 ¶¶ 1-13, 36-223.) Plaintiffs alleged that the SMU's conditions constituted solitary confinement, which was defined as 22 or more hours per day in a cell without meaningful human contact. (Id. ¶ 200.) Plaintiffs further alleged that their solitary confinement presented a substantial risk of serious psychological harm to the Plaintiffs and class members, in violation of the Eighth Amendment (id. ¶¶ 201-16), and that procedures for placing prisoners in the SMU were arbitrary in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause (id. ¶¶ 101-99). Defendants stipulate that the Settlement Agreement is “the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violations of federal rights” alleged by Plaintiffs. (Doc. 201-1 ¶ 7.)[3] In addition, there is evidence in the record supporting Plaintiffs' allegations. (See, e.g., Doc. 142; Docs. 154-4 to 154-29; Docs. 161-4 to 161-8; Docs. 167 to 167-8; Docs. 168 to 168-3.)

         As discussed in greater detail below, the Court finds that the prospective relief provided in the Settlement Agreement is necessary to prevent violations of prisoners' constitutional rights in this case, is narrowly tailored and extends no further than necessary to correct those violations, and constitutes the least intrusive means of ensuring compliance with minimal constitutional requirements. As an initial matter, Cason's requirement of “particularized” and “provision-by-provision” findings, 231 F.3d at 785, allows for some flexibility in light of the circumstances of each case. Where the parties dispute whether relief is appropriate under § 3626, a district court ordinarily holds an evidentiary hearing, creates a record, and makes factual findings. See Loyd v. Alabama Dep't of Corr., 176 F.3d 1336, 1342 (11th Cir. 1999). In this case, however, the parties have chosen to resolve the case without further proceedings. Although the stage at which this litigation was resolved limits the record available for the Court to consider in making need-narrowness-intrusiveness findings, the Eleventh Circuit has recognized that a district court applying § 3626(a) should “discuss those factors and enter findings that are as specific to the case as the circumstances permit.” Johnson v. Breeden, 280 F.3d 1308, 1326 (11th Cir. 2002). Therefore, the Court concludes that it need not hold an evidentiary hearing or require the parties to expend time and resources on presenting evidence. See generally Williams v. First Nat'l Bank, 216 U.S. 582, 595 (1910) (“Compromises of disputed claims are favored by the courts.”); Cotton v. Hinton, 559 F.2d 1326, 1331 (5th Cir. 1977) (“Particularly in class action suits, there is an overriding public interest in favor of settlement.”). The Court will instead make findings “as specific to the case as the circumstances permit, ” recognizing that “there may not be much to say” about certain matters in light of the limited record available to the Court. See Johnson, 280 F.3d at 1326.

         Making the findings required by § 3626 “requires a degree of judgment.” See Brown v. Plata, 563 U.S. 493, 538 (2011). And even under the limitations imposed by the PLRA, “[c]ourts have substantial flexibility when making these judgments.” Id. To determine whether a remedial provision is “narrowly drawn” and “extends no further than necessary, ” 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(1)(A), courts assess the “fit between the remedy's ends and the means chosen to accomplish those ends.” Brown, 563 U.S. At 531 (quoting Bd. of Trustees of State Univ. of N.Y. v. Fox, 492 U.S. 469, 480 (1989)) (internal alterations and quotation marks omitted). The necessity and narrow-tailoring requirements forbid orders that “unnecessarily reach out” to fix problems other than those that violate federal law. Id. Rather, the “scope of the remedy must be proportional to the scope of the violation, and the order must extend no further than necessary to remedy the violation.” Id. Similarly, the requirement that the relief ordered be “the least intrusive means necessary, ” 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(1)(A), aims to ensure that the relief ordered “does not excessively impede upon the [prison system's] internal administration, ” see Thomas v. Bryant, 614 F.3d 1288, 1325 (11th Cir. 2010). The least intrusive orders will tend to be those that track a prison system's “current policy” and leave discretion to prison officials in implementing the ordered relief. Id.

         In determining the permissible scope of relief, a court must consider what relief would be sufficient “to adequately protect future class members” from harm. Plata, 563 U.S. at 532. A remedial order narrowly tailored to preventing future violations of certain class members' federal rights is not overbroad even though its “collateral effects” may improve conditions for prisoners generally. Id. at 531 (holding order requiring release of prisoners to ensure timely medical care for class members was not overbroad, even though the order would benefit prisoners outside of the plaintiff class by, among other things, reducing prison violence and prompting parole reform).

         a. Out-of-Cell Time

         Paragraphs 11 to 18 of the Settlement Agreement provide that class members will ordinarily receive a minimum of four hours out-of-cell time per day, Monday through Friday, subject to specified limitations and conditions. The Settlement Agreement does not require that class members be permitted to leave their cells on weekends. Out-of-cell time may be cancelled if required by “unanticipated security or safety considerations.” (Doc. 207-1 ¶ 12.) It also may be cancelled for up to 14 days, on an individualized basis, as punishment for certain disciplinary offenses. (Doc. 207-1 ¶ 16.) When it occurs, the out-of-cell time contemplated by the Settlement Agreement occurs under regimented and secure conditions. One hour of out-of-cell time occurs in “the outdoor recreation cages.” (Doc. 207-1 ¶ 12.) The record shows that those cages are single-person enclosures that appear to be secure and austere. (See Doc. 159-1 at 15-16 (photographs of the outdoor cages).) Three hours of out-of-cell time will occur “using restraint tables.” (Doc. 207-1 ¶ 12.) Restraint tables ensure the “safety of staff and inmates” by limiting a prisoner's “ability to stand and move around.” (Myrick Decl. (Doc. 171-2) ¶ 10.) Prisoners may voluntarily decline out-of-cell time. (Doc. 207-1 ¶ 17.) Prisoners denied out-of-cell time as punishment will be visited by a mental health counselor on non-holiday weekdays. (Doc. 207-1 ¶ 16.) The Settlement Agreement also provides ancillary provisions requiring Defendants to document out-of-cell time, address failures to provide out-of-cell time, and provide sufficient staff to comply with the Settlement Agreement's provisions. (Doc. 207-1 ¶¶ 13-14, 17-18.)

         The Court finds that the out-of-cell time provisions are narrowly tailored and extend no further than necessary to prevent an unconstitutional “risk of psychological harm” to the class members. See Thomas v. Bryant, 614 F.3d 1288, 1315 (11th Cir. 2010) (recognizing risk of psychological harm can violate Eighth Amendment). The Settlement Agreement provides for 20 hours per week of total out-of-cell time. Moreover, the out-of-cell time provided under the Settlement Agreement occurs under highly secure conditions and is subject to cancellation by prison officials in cases of emergency or unforeseen circumstances. Prison officials also are permitted to punish prisoners with up to 14 days of deprivation of out-of-cell time under certain conditions, which is consistent with evidence in the record suggesting that solitary confinement in excess of 15 days is considered harmful. (Doc. 159-1 ¶ 108.) The provision for daily mental health counselor contacts with class members on yard restriction is necessary and narrowly tailored to ensuring that mentally vulnerable class members are identified.

         The ancillary provisions concerning out-of-cell time also are narrowly tailored and necessary to prevent violations of Plaintiffs' rights. The provision for staffing is necessary to ensure that the Settlement Agreement is implemented, and there is evidence that understaffing has limited out-of-cell time in the recent past. (See Doc. 239 at 3 (acknowledging class members' complaints that understaffing diminishes out-of-cell time).) Provisions for documenting out-of-cell time are necessary and narrowly tailored to ensuring that the Settlement Agreement is implemented. Finally, given that prison officials expressly consented to these provisions, the Court cannot find that there is a less intrusive means of protecting the class members' federal rights.

         In short, the out-of-cell provisions protect the class members' rights while ensuring that Defendants' ability to run a safe and secure facility is not compromised. Accordingly, the Court finds that the out-of-cell time provisions are necessary, are narrowly drawn, and intrude no further than necessary.

         b. Activities, Programs, and Privileges

         Paragraphs 19 to 27 of the Settlement Agreement provide that class members will have access to certain activities and privileges. The Settlement Agreement provides that class members will have operable computer tablets called “GOAL devices.” (Doc. 207-1 ¶ 20.) These devices have multiple functions, the most important of which for present purposes are educational materials, games, books, and similar activities. (Myrick Decl. (Doc. 171-2) ¶ 10; Doc. 171-2 at 6-10 (informational materials concerning GOAL devices).) The Settlement Agreement further provides that class members may request materials from the Georgia Diagnostic library, and will have access to mobile book carts on a weekly basis. (Doc. 207-1 ¶ 19.) Within six months of the December 21, 2018, date that the parties entered the Settlement Agreement, Defendants are to provide class members “the opportunity to participate in at least 120 minutes per week of out-of-cell programming or classes.” (Doc. 207-1 ¶ 22.) Prisoners also will have access to “approved” religious materials, and religious services “at the discretion of the [SMU] Superintendent.” (Doc. 207-1 ¶ 27.) Class members will have the privileges listed in Georgia Department of Corrections Standard Operating Procedure No. 209.09 (Doc. 207-1 ¶ 26), which allows class members certain personal property, visitation, telephone calls, access to commissary goods, showers three times per week, and assorted other conditions.[4]

         The Court finds that each of these provisions is a necessary correlate of the out-of-cell time provisions. Evidence in the record suggests that “enforced idleness and inactivity” contributes to the psychological harm associated with solitary confinement. (Doc. 159-1 ¶ 92.) The Court finds that the provisions for GOAL devices, books, programming, religious services, and related conditions are necessary and narrowly tailored to preventing the serious psychological harm allegedly caused by solitary confinement and extend no further than necessary to prevent violations of the class members' federal rights. The Court cannot find that there is a less intrusive alternative to the parties' proposal, given that prison officials have ...

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