By John Van Swearingen

On March 24, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the prisoner civil rights case Porter v. Clarke. Plaintiffs, originally four Virginia death row inmates, filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia alleging that the conditions of their confinement amounted to cruel and unusual punishment violative of the Eighth Amendment. One inmate was executed during the course of this action, leaving three inmates as Plaintiffs. Defendants, the Director of the Virginia Department of Correction and the Warden of the Sussex I State Prison, thereafter changed the policies at issue in the complaint. The district court subsequently dismissed Plaintiff’s action for mootness. Plaintiffs timely appealed, claiming their action is not moot.

Facts and Procedural History

In November 2014, when Plaintiffs filed this lawsuit, the Virginia Department of Corrections was operating under a pair of 2010 policies that governed the living conditions of death row inmates. Plaintiffs spent twenty-three hours a day in seventy-one-square-foot cells, alone, with a steel bed, a desk, and a combination commode-and-sink. Death row inmates could not have “contact” visits with anyone; all visitation was separated by plexiglass. The warden had unlimited discretion in granting contact visits with immediate family under “extreme circumstances.”

Inmates were allotted one hour of “outdoor recreation” five days a week. This consisted of an empty outdoor cell similar in size to the inmates’ living cells. Inmates had zero access to any group behavioral, educational, vocational, or religious services.

In August 2015, Defendants established new interim guidelines permitting death row inmates one-and-a-half-hour weekly contact visits with immediate family, one-and-a-half-hour weekend and holiday contact visits with other approved visitors, one-and-a-half-hour outdoor recreation sessions five days a week, daily one-hour indoor recreation sessions with up to three other inmates, and a daily fifteen-minute shower. Defendants built a new outdoor recreation area for group activities and an indoor recreation dayroom for group behavioral, educational, vocational, and religious services.

In December 2015, Plaintiffs and Defendants filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Defendants never explicitly moved for dismissal on the grounds of mootness. At the motion hearing, Defendants also noted that they would not take any action binding them to the new guidelines, stating instead that the fluid nature of corrections require that they be able to increase security back to “lockdown status” if need be.

In May 2016, the district court requested an update from Defendant’s on the status of the interim guidelines. Defendants filed an affidavit stating they had updated to new policies providing one-and-a-half-hour outdoor recreation five days a week, one-hour indoor recreation with up to four inmates daily, fifteen minute daily showers, weekly one-and-a-half-hour contact visitation sessions with immediate family and one approved other visitor, non-contact weekend and holiday visitation, and extended visitation sessions granted on a case-by-case basis. Per Defendants’ affidavit, the new policies will be reviewed annually and updated in no later than three years.

In July 2016, the district court granted summary judgment for Defendants’ despite the Defendants’ refusal to neither admit that the pre-2015 inmate conditions violated the Eighth Amendment nor offer any guarantee that the pre-2015 policies would not be restored. The lower court dismissed the Plaintiff’s cross-motion as moot, and Plaintiffs timely appealed.

Mootness Requires More Than a Voluntary Cessation of the Challenged Behavior

Under Article III § 2 of the United States Constitution, federal courts are deprived of subject matter jurisdiction when litigation ceases to involve a “case or controversy.” In other words, as noted by the United States Supreme Court in Powell v. McCormack, “a case is moot when the issues presented are no longer ‘live’ or the parties lack a legally cognizable interest in the outcome.” 395 U.S. 486, 496 (1969).

However, in City of Mesquite v. Aladdin’s Castle, Inc., the Supreme Court also noted that “a defendant’s voluntary cessation of a challenged practice does not deprive a federal court of its power to determine the legality of the practice.” 455 U.S. 283, 289 (1982). As noted by the First Circuit in ACLU of Mass. v. U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a savvy litigant could otherwise render itself immune to litigation by voluntary ceasing a challenged behavior upon the filing of a complaint, then resume that behavior following dismissal for mootness. 705 F.3d 44, 54–55 (1st Cir. 2013).

Instead, a Defendant seeking dismissal for mootness must, pursuant to the Supreme Court’s holding in Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services (TOC), Inc., meet the heavy burden of showing that “it is absolutely clear the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur.” 528 U.S. 167, 190 (2000). This burden is not met if, as in the Fourth Circuit’s decision in Pashby v. Delia, a defendant retains the authority to reinstate a challenged policy. 709 F.3d 307, 316–17 (4th Cir. 2013).

Nothing here bars Defendants from returning to the original policies addressed in Plaintiff’s complaint. Indeed, they have stated that the policies may be reinstated in some form if a situation demanded “lockdown” of the inmates. Further, Defendants expressly refused to commit to the revised policies or admit that the original policies violated Plaintiff’s Eighth Amendment rights. The Fourth Circuit expressly declined to support or denounce the original policies, noting that there may be valid “penological rationale” for reverting to the original policies as described if a situation rendered those policies appropriate. However, the Fourth Circuit noted that this very possibility rendered the dismissal of Plaintiff’s complaint for mootness improper.

Disposition

The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s judgment and remanded for further proceedings. Since Defendants expressly retained the discretion to reinstate the policies challenged by Plaintiffs, the voluntary dismissal of those policies did not render the action moot.

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