Law360 (June 15, 2020, 7:17 PM EDT) -- The Eleventh Circuit on Monday vacated a preliminary injunction ordering Miami-Dade County, Florida, to take certain steps to curb the spread of COVID-19 at a county jail, ruling that the trial judge wrongly determined that the jail's social distancing efforts are insufficient and constitutes "deliberate indifference."
In a 2-1 majority opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Kevin C. Newsom wrote that the district judge erred in concluding that the increase in the rate of infections at Metro West Detention Center, which houses more than 1,800 inmates, and the "seeming impossibility" of implementing meaningful social distancing measures are evidence of the county's deliberate indifference to inmates' health.
"Failing to do the 'impossible' doesn't evince indifference, let alone deliberate indifference," Judge Newsom wrote.
But U.S. Circuit Judge Beverly B. Martin disagreed, writing in a sharp dissent that the inmates are likely to show their treatment amounts to deliberate indifference in violation of their constitutional rights.
"The COVID-19 pandemic is a global health crisis that has taken the lives of thousands and strained every level of our society and government," Judge Martin wrote. "But crises do not lower the constitutional limits on the conditions in which people may be confined against their will."
The panel's ruling is the latest in a lawsuit that a proposed class of medically vulnerable Metro West inmates filed on April 5, after at least 15 county jail employees tested positive for the coronavirus.
The inmates claim that Miami-Dade County and its Corrections and Rehabilitation Department Director Daniel Junior violated their rights under the Eighth and 14th Amendments by exposing them to COVID-19.
The suit asks the court to order the jail to comply with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and to release a subclass of medically vulnerable inmates.
After 163 inmates tested positive for the virus within three weeks, on April 29, U.S. District Judge Kathleen M. Williams issued a preliminary injunction, finding that the social distancing measures the prison had implemented were insufficient. She ordered the county to take additional measures and to provide inmates with soap and other personal hygiene items.
She also required the county to submit a proposal for additional safeguards and ongoing reports on the facility's population and testing results.
But shortly after, an Eleventh Circuit panel ruled 2-1 to pause the injunction pending resolution of the county's appeal, and earlier this month, Miami-Dade County urged the panel to toss the preliminary injunction outright.
The county argued during a phone hearing that the district judge was holding the county to an unreasonable standard of liability and the ruling could set a dangerous precedent. But the inmates' counsel, Emma Simson of WilmerHale, defended the judge's decision and argued that the measures the county has taken don't adequately address the health risks of living in close quarters.
In its decision on Monday, the majority sided with the county, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court's Farmer v. Brennan ruling in 1994 set a "high bar" to establish deliberate indifference in the prison context. The majority emphasized that prison officials may be free from liability if they reasonably responded to the risk, even if the harm wasn't ultimately avoided.
The majority also cited a report that said the prison officials were "doing their best" in implementing social distancing measures, including by placing tape on the floor to encourage inmates to stay six feet apart, staggering bunks, providing inmates with hygiene supplies, suspending visitation, requiring inmates and staff to wear masks and screening them for fevers and symptoms. The prison also installed ionizers to clean the air in the prisons and body-heat cameras to measure inmates' temperatures, the opinion says.
The majority added that when the judge issued the injunction, the prison had released 894 inmates, cutting its population to less than 70% capacity.
"Whatever deliberate indifference is, the defendants' conduct here doesn't show it," the majority opinion says.
Additionally, the majority found that Judge Williams erred in refusing to address the heightened standards for municipal liability under Monell v. Department of Social Services , and by not considering the county's argument that the inmates failed to properly exhaust available administrative remedies under the Prison Litigation Reform Act.
In a dissent, Judge Martin rejected the majority's reasoning on all fronts, noting that there is un-rebutted expert testimony showing that the prison couldn't stop the spread of the virus with its high population. It's also clear based on detailed statements by the inmates that the social distancing measures the county did purportedly take aren't enough, the judge wrote.
Judge Martin pointed out that, under the Eleventh Circuit's 1993 ruling in LaMarca v. Turner, "good faith efforts" to resolve health risks can't overcome evidence that jail staff "recklessly disregarded the necessary means to protect inmate safety." That's what is occurring in this case, the judge said.
Judge Martin also rejected the county's reasoning that, because it doesn't have the authority to release inmates, it therefore can't be held liable.
"State laws that compel jail officials to detain people in manifestly unsafe conditions cannot preclude a finding of deliberate indifference," the judge wrote.
Counsel for the inmates, Alec Karakatsanis of Civil Rights Corps, said on Monday that the majority opinion appears to create a new rule of law that would make federal courts powerless to protect people from extreme illness and death as long as state rules don't let jail officials take the actions necessary to save people.
"The majority cites not a single legal authority in U.S. history for that dangerous proposition and for good reason," Karakatsanis said. "We will review all of our options and are confident that such a rule would not be a reflection of our legal system's logic or values."
Since the county appealed the injunction in late April, one of the proposed class members, Charles Hobbs, has died from coronavirus-related complications, according to a footnote in the majority opinion.
Representatives for the county and Junior didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
U.S. Circuit Judges Beverly B. Martin and Kevin C. Newsom and U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins, sitting by designation, sat on the panel for the Eleventh Circuit.
The inmates are represented by Emma Simson, Daniel S. Volchok and Emily Barnet of WilmerHale and Alec Karakatsanis of Civil Rights Corps.
Miami-Dade County and Junior are represented by Ezra S. Greenberg, Bernard Pastor, Zach Vosseler and Oren Rosenthal of the county's attorney's office.
The case is Anthony Swain et al. v. Daniel Junior et al., case number 20-11622, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
--Additional reporting by Nathan Hale. Editing by Nicole Bleier.
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