Fla. Judge Taps Stearns Weaver Atty To Monitor ICE Centers

By Carolina Bolado
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Law360 (July 20, 2020, 10:29 PM EDT) -- A Florida federal judge on Friday appointed Matthew C. Dates of Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson PA to keep tabs on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities in the state, following allegations that conditions fail to meet the requirements set out in a court order to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks.

U.S. District Judge Marcia G. Cooke appointed Dates as special master to inspect the three Florida detention centers at issue in a class action brought by detainees and report back to the court on the conditions by Sept. 1.

"In balancing petitioners' allegations with ICE's submissions, each of petitioners' allegations, if true, would be in direct contravention of the preliminary injunction order," Judge Cooke said. "However, ICE's submissions to the court, although conflicting with petitioners' claims, appear to comply with the preliminary injunction order. Accordingly, the court finds it appropriate to appoint a special master."

The judge is seeking to enforce a June 6 order that required ICE to adhere to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's COVID-19 guidelines by providing detainees unrestricted access to soap, masks, disinfectants and other cleaning supplies. The order also demands stepped-up cleaning routines, education on coronavirus for detainees and staff, and limited transfers of detainees.

But at a June 25 hearing, detainees testified that it is impossible to social distance in in the ICE facilities, where they sleep in close quarters, share a water cooler and have to stand in line with COVID-19-positive detainees to get food or use the bathroom. They said they've received inadequate cleaning supplies, and the soap in the bathrooms is not refilled frequently enough.

The judge had previously issued an order appointing a different special master July 6 before quickly vacating the order without explanation.

Fifty-eight detainees at Krome Detention Center in Miami-Dade County, Broward Transitional Center in Broward County and Glades County Detention Center filed suit in April, claiming ICE was failing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and requesting the release of a proposed class of vulnerable prisoners. At the time the suit was filed, the three facilities had no confirmed cases of COVID-19, but since then all have reported several dozen cases.

On June 6, Judge Cooke granted the detainees' request for a preliminary injunction after finding that they were likely to succeed on claims that ICE violated their rights under the Fifth and Eighth amendments by creating an undue increased risk of severe illness or death, including through "deliberate indifference."

Judge Cooke also rejected ICE's assertion that its decisions about facility management and detainee transfers are not subject to judicial review, saying the agency's authority "is not absolute."

The judge approved a broad class, covering all civil immigration detainees held at Krome, BTC and Glades since the lawsuit was filed. She also said the class includes detainees transferred to other facilities, even outside of Florida.

Scott Edson of King & Spalding LLP, who represents the detainees, said he and his team are pleased that the judge is "appointing a neutral investigator to get to the bottom of the conditions ICE is holding our clients in."

A representative for ICE did not respond to a request for comment.

The detainees are represented by Rebecca Sharpless and Romy Louise Lerner of the University of Miami School of Law Immigration Clinic, Scott M. Edson, Kathryn S. Lehman and Chad A. Peterson of King & Spalding LLP, Gregory P. Copeland and Sarah T. Gillman of the Rapid Defense Network, Mark A. Prada and Anthony Richard Dominguez of Prada Urizar PLLC, Paul R. Chavez and Maia Fleischman of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Andrea Montavon-McKillip of the Legal Aid Service of Broward County Inc. and Lisa M. Berlow-Lehner of Americans for Immigrant Justice.

The government is represented by Dexter Lee and Natalie Diaz of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida.

The case is Gayle et al. v. Meade et al., case number 1:20-cv-21553, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

--Additional reporting by Nathan Hale. Editing by Breda Lund.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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