Class certified over 2019 winter power outage at Brooklyn jail

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  • Class could include more than 1,600 people
  • Plaintiffs say they endured "frigid" conditions during outage

(Reuters) - A federal judge has certified as a class action a lawsuit claiming that inmates at a federal jail in Brooklyn were subject to dangerous conditions during a power outage in 2019 as a result of the jail's negligence.

U.S. District Judge Edward Korman in Brooklyn ruled Tuesday that common questions predominated in the case, rejecting the federal government's argument that the injuries suffered by each inmate at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) would have to be evaluated individually.

"Prisons and prison officials often escape accountability for even the most serious failures because individual incarcerated people cannot access the court system," Katie Rosenfeld of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. "(T)he court's decision affirms that everyone who experienced this crisis can bring their claim to the federal court."

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The federal Bureau of Prisons, which runs the jail, declined to comment.

The lawsuit, brought against the federal government and jail officials, stems from a power outage at one building in the MDC, which houses federal prisoners awaiting trial, that occurred from Jan. 27, 2019 until Feb. 3, 2019.

Plaintiffs alleged that as a result of the outage, which took place in the midst of harsh cold snap, they experienced "inhumane conditions that posed unreasonable and substantial risks to their health and safety."

According to the complaint, following the outage the jail was locked down, with inmates not permitted to leave their frigid cells for days at a time with no light. They also did not receive hot food or adequate clothing to keep warm under the conditions, the complaint said.

The plaintiffs further alleged that during the outage, visitors, including counsel, were turned away; that jail staff failed to communicate about the situation; and that inmates did not receive adequate medical care.

The outage prompted an investigation by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General, culminating in a report finding longstanding problems with temperature regulation and other problems at the jail.

The plaintiffs sought to certify a class of about 1,694 people – all of whom were in the affected building during the outage.

In opposing class certification, the government argued that the issues in the case were individual, since each class member would need to show injury, and that the injury was caused by the jail's negligence.

Korman rejected that argument.

"The question at this stage is not whether these elements can be assumed or established, but rather whether a classwide proceeding can resolve them in a way that generates common answers bearing on each of the claims raised by class members," he wrote. "Plaintiffs’ claims arise from conditions that applied to them in uniform or similar ways, and which they allege were caused by defendants’ policies, acts, and omissions."

The government also said that the named plaintiffs did not represent the class because they had already exhausted administrative proceedings within the Bureau of Prisons, while other class members had not.

Korman said that was not reason to deny certification, but that any potential class members who ultimately fail to exhaust their administrative remedies will be excluded from the class.

The case is Scott v. Quay, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York, No. 19-cv-05039.

For the plaintiffs: Katherine Rosenfeld of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel; Betsy Ginsberg of the Cardozo Law Civil Rights Clinic; and Cardozo School of Law professor Alexander Reinert

For the government: Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen Mahoney of the Eastern District of New York

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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.