11th Circ. vacatur allows disabled Ga. inmates back into longterm solitary

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  • Court finds preliminary injunction expired after 90 days
  • Plaintiffs say psychiatrically disabled female inmates confined to isolation cells for months, in unsanitary conditions
  • Dispute hinges on interpretation of Prison Litigation Reform Act

(Reuters) - A federal appeals court has vacated an injunction won by female inmates with psychiatric disabilities in a Georgia jail requiring jail officials to allow them time out of their isolation cells, finding that the injunction expired automatically thanks to a federal law limiting lawsuits over prison conditions.

The 2-1 panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did not address the merits of the plaintiffs' claims in a ruling issued Wednesday, instead finding that the preliminary injunction against officials at the Fulton County Jail's South Annex in Union City, Georgia "expired by operation of law" under the Prison Litigation Reform Act because a federal judge did not make it permanent within 90 days.

"We are disappointed by the decision," said Devon Orland of the Georgia Advocacy Office in an email, on behalf of all of plaintiffs' counsel, including the Southern Center for Human Rights and Caplan Cobb. "Without an injunction in force, conditions are likely to return to the deplorable state that prevailed for years before this litigation."

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A spokesperson for the Fulton County Attorney's Office, which represented the jail officials, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The proposed class action was filed in April 2019 by two inmates and the Georgia Advocacy Office, a federally funded non-profit.

The plaintiffs alleged that the jail confined psychiatrically disabled female inmates to isolation cells, called "mental health pods," for months at a time, in unsanitary conditions. They asserted claims under the 8th Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments, 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In July 2019, U.S. District Judge William Ray granted a preliminary injunction requiring jail officials to give female inmates in "mental health pods" at least four hours daily of out-of-cell time, and to develop a plan to improve their conditions. In September 2019, he issued an addendum with more detail, which also found that the injunction complied with the Prison Litigation Reform Act.

The 1996 law limits litigation by prisoners. It includes a requirement that any injunction will expire after 90 days unless the court finds that the injunction goes no further than necessary, is minimally intrusive and is as narrow as possible, and that the court "makes the order final."

The jail officials appealed the injunction, arguing that the injunction did not comply with the PLRA because making the order "final" required a final ruling on the merits and a permanent injunction.

Senior Circuit Judge Gerald Tjoflat, writing for the majority on Wednesday, agreed. He wrote that, while the parties have continued to litigate the case in the lower court, the preliminary injunction expired long ago, and that the requirement of a speedy permanent injunction served "the PLRA's twin aims of expediting prison litigation and ending judicial micromanagement of prison systems."

Tjoflat was joined by Circuit Judge Britt Grant.

Circuit Judge Charles Wilson dissented, saying the phrase "makes the order final" in the PLRA was not equivalent to a final judgment and permanent injunction.

"The majority's holding today threatens to leave prisoners in vulnerable, likely unconstitutional situations without relief during the pendency of their lawsuits," he wrote.

The case is Georgia Advocacy Office v. Jackson, 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 19-14227.

For plaintiffs: Devon Orland of the Georgia Advocacy Office

For defendants: Ashley Palmer of the Fulton County Attorney's Office

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Brendan Pierson reports on product liability litigation and on all areas of health care law. He can be reached at brendan.pierson@thomsonreuters.com.