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Elder v. Williamson

October 27, 2008

JOHN C. ELDER ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
NEIL WILLIAMSON ET AL., DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Harold A. Baker United States District Judge

Merit Review Order

Five plaintiffs have filed a complaint challenging the conditions at Sangamon County Jail. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a), the court is required to review the complaint and dismiss any portion thereof that is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or seeks money damages from a defendant who is immune from money damages.

Multi-Plaintiff Litigation

The plaintiffs appear to seek systemic improvements in the conditions for pretrial detainees at Sangamon County Jail. They cannot pursue a class action pro se. "Under [Fed. R. Civ. P.] Rule 23(a)(4), a class representative must fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class. A litigant may bring his own claims to federal court without counsel, but not the claims of others. This is so because the competence of a layman is clearly too limited to allow him to risk the rights of others." Rowe v. Davis, 373 F.Supp.2d 822, 828 (N.D. Ind. 2005). The plaintiffs are limited to seeking redress for actual violations of their own constitutional rights. It appears that they are no longer incarcerated at Sangamon County Jail, so it is not clear whether injunctive relief is available. However, that determination is premature.

Another word on multi-plaintiff litigation is in order. The plaintiffs each have to pay their own filing fee, even if they are proceeding jointly. Boriboune v. Berge, 391 F.3d 852, 856 (7th Cir. 2004). That filing fee has been assessed, but it appears that two of the plaintiffs still need to make the initial partial payment. Additionally, each plaintiff will be held accountable for the other's claims for purposes of Rule 11 (sanctions) and 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g)(strikes). Id. That is, strikes or sanctions assessed against one plaintiff are assessed against the other plaintiffs, even for claims that do not overlap. Lastly, each of the plaintiffs has to sign the complaint, as well as any motion filed with the court seeking action on their common claims. This court cannot coordinate that effort. The reason for this rule is that it would not be fair to presume that what one plaintiff wants is wanted by all the plaintiffs. In lieu of obtaining signatures on the motion itself, other plaintiffs may join in a motion by filing their own "motion to join" and identifying the motion in which they join. If any plaintiff fails to join in the motion, however, it will be denied on that basis.

Analysis of Allegations

To state a claim under federal notice pleading standards, all the Complaint must do is set forth a "short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief . . . ." Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). Factual allegations are accepted as true and need only give "'fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" EEOC v. Concentra Health Serv., Inc., 496 F.3d 773, 776-77 (7th Cir. 2007), quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1964 (2007)(other citation omitted). Pro se pleadings are construed liberally. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519 (1972).

A pretrial detainee's claim falls under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, rather than under the Eighth Amendment. Grieveson v. Anderson, 538 F.3d 763, 771-72 (7th Cir. 2008); Guzman v. Sheahan, 495 F.3d 852, 856 (7th Cir.2007). However, that is no cause for optimism by the pretrial detainee, because "there is 'little practical difference between the two standards.'" Mayoral v. Sheahan, 245 F.3d 934, 938 (7th Cir. 2001), citing Weiss v. Cooley, 230 F.2d 1027 (7th Cir. 2000); Grieveson, 538 F.3d at 772 (though pretrial detainee cannot be "punished," "the inquiry under both provisions of the Constitution is essentially the same."). This is so even though a pretrial detainee is presumed innocent for purposes of his criminal trial.

Like the Eighth Amendment, the plaintiff must pass an objective and subjective test. The deprivation must be sufficiently serious to arise to "punishment," and the defendants must have acted with a "sufficiently culpable state of mind." Id. at 473. Prison conditions do not violate the Constitution unless they "result in the denial of the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities." Henderson v. Sheahan, 196 F.3d 839, 845 (7th Cir. 1999)(quoted cite omitted). "'[E]xtreme deprivations are required to make out a conditions-of-confinement claim.'" Id., quoting Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 9 (1992). The totality of the conditions are examined. See Demallory v. Cullen, 855 F.2d 442, 445 (7th Cir.1988).

Overcrowding

On intake, Plaintiff Elder*fn1 had to share a 70 square foot cell with three other pretrial detainees for 72 hours, and had no opportunity to take a shower. After he was classified, he was double-bunked in a cell meant for one inmate, from September 15, 2007 through April 2008. He had to sleep on the concrete and had no privacy. The double-celling caused "constant tension and aggressive tendencies." The plaintiffs, collectively, seek "depopulation" and single cells.

This court knows from other cases by pretrial detainees at Sangamon County Jail that they are provided with mattresses to sleep on the floor and that the "bunk" in the cell is made of concrete, just like the floor. Sleeping on a mattress on the floor generally does not, by itself, offend the Constitution. See Tesch v. County of Green Lake, 157 F.3d 465 (7th Cir. 1998)(sleeping on mattress on floor for less than 2 days not severe enough), citing in approval Powell v. Cook County Jail, 814 F.Supp. 757, 759 (N.D.Ill.1993)("holding that the Constitution is indifferent as to whether the mattress is on the floor or on the bed"). Further, the double-celling, by itself, generally does not amount to "punishment" of a pretrial detainee. Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 540 (1979)(double-celling pretrial detainees in cell meant for one inmate did not violate due process where cell was 75 square feet, inmates were confined in cell only from 11 pm to 6:30 a.m., and generally stayed in jail 60 days). There is no single-cell requirement in the Constitution. Bell, 441 U.S. at 540. The court also knows from other cases by pretrial detainees at Sangamon County Jail that pretrial detainees have access to a dayroom for about 12 hours per day.

These are essentially factual findings, however, that require a developed factual record regarding the duration and severity of conditions experienced by a particular plaintiff. Plaintiff Elder is not bound by factual findings in other cases. Additionally, he alleges serious back problems, as well as three days in a 70 square foot cell with three other pretrial detainees. The court therefore believes dismissal of this claim is premature. At this point, the court construes the general overcrowding claim as being by all the plaintiffs against those defendants who might be inferred to have knowledge and control over the conditions: Williamson, Strayer and Durr.*fn2

Unsanitary Conditions

The plaintiffs allege unsanitary conditions, particularly with regard to air circulation, the cleaning supplies available, and food handling. At this point, these claims remain in for further development.

No boiling water/microwave to prepare commissary food items The plaintiffs allege that some of the food sold at the commissary requires boiling water or a microwave to prepare, but neither is available. That does not arise to a deprivation serious enough to implicate the Constitution, and, accordingly does not state a claim.

Religious Diets

The plaintiffs challenge a blanket policy denying special diets for any reason, including religion. While this arguably states a claim, they do not state that they need a religious diet or that they requested a religious diet but were denied. The allegations do not give fair notice of how the plaintiffs' rights to practice their religion by adhering to a specific diet were violated.

Mail, Books and Newspapers

Jail officers may open mail in the presence of inmates and pre-trial detainees. Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 577 (1974). The plaintiffs' challenge to this practice therefore does not state a claim.

The plaintiffs also allege that they are allowed to keep only handwritten letters and typed letters from lawyers. They allege that they are not allowed "computer generated" letters, literature, photos, or news articles. They also allege that they cannot receive books, magazines and/or newspapers from friends, families or publishers. "Prison regulations or practices that affect a prisoner's receipt of non-legal mail . . . implicate First Amendment rights and must be 'reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.'" Rowe v. Shake, 196 F.3d 778, 781 (7th Cir. 1999), quoting Thornburgh v. Abbott, 490 U.S. 401 (1989). This claim remains in for further development. However, reading mail that staff has probable cause to believe contains escape plans, threats of bodily harm or damage, is on its face related to legitimate penological interests. Their facial challenge to this practice thus fails to state a claim. No inference ...


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