Federal Judge Greenlights Class-Action Lawsuit Challenging Deplorable Conditions at Suffolk County Jails

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March 20, 2013 —  A federal judge has ruled that allegations of constitutional violations in a lawsuit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the law firm of Shearman & Sterling LLP challenging deplorable and inhumane conditions in Suffolk County’s two jails were sufficiently serious to state claims for violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The judge also ruled that, because the alleged constitutional violations affect all current and future detainees of the Suffolk County’s jails, the case should move forward as a certified class action.

“This decision recognizes our allegations that the inhumane conditions at the jails are the uniform product of decades of neglect and indifference by county officials that have harmed and continue to harm thousands of people in Suffolk County, many of whom have not yet been convicted of any crime and are simply awaiting their day in court,” said Amol Sinha, director of the NYCLU’s Suffolk County Chapter. “For too long, county officials have been content to force people to live in degrading conditions that are unfit for a civilized society. It’s time for them to meet their moral and constitutional obligations to provide humane conditions at the jails.”

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In the 53-page ruling, issued late Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Joanna Seybert denied the motion to dismiss the case with respect to Suffolk County. Although Judge Seybert granted the motion to dismiss against the individually named defendants, including Sheriff Vincent Demarco and two other senior county officials, she granted the class leave to reassert their claims against the individuals in the future. Judge Seybert also ruled that all detainees who have been incarcerated in the Suffolk County jails since April 2009 can seek damages, and that current detainees may collectively seek a court order forcing Suffolk County to comply with its constitutional obligations going forward.

The lawsuit was filed in April 2012 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York on behalf of individuals currently and previously detained at two Suffolk County jails: Riverhead, a maximum/medium security jail, and Yaphank, a minimum security jail.

The complaint alleges that people housed in these facilities are subjected to a range of severely unsanitary and inhumane conditions, including defective plumbing, overflowing sewage, chronic overcrowding, poor water, food, and air quality, rodent and insect infestation, pervasive mold and rust, and freezing temperatures.

“We believe that the Court’s willingness to certify a damages class in this case is indicative of the widespread severity of the conditions at issue, and the large number of people who have suffered injury and can be compensated in no other way for Suffolk County’s constitutional violations,” said Shearman & Sterling’s Daniel Laguardia. “This is an important step towards obtaining a real remedy for these long-standing violations, and we plan to pursue this suit vigorously on behalf of the classes.”

Judge Seybert rejected the county’s argument that the lawsuit should be dismissed on the grounds that there is no conceivable remedy that the Court could grant that would alleviate the deplorable conditions in the jails.

“[T]he Court can draft an injunction that requires Defendants to take specific actions to eliminate the allegedly cruel and inhuman conditions in the SCCF. For example, the Court can set a limit on the number of inmates to be housed in Riverhead and Yaphank, order that the plumbing systems be repaired/replaced and that inmates be provided with proper cleaning supplies, and/or set minimum standards of cleanliness that must be maintained,” Judge Seybert wrote.

With the granting of class certification, any order to remedy the conditions at the county jails will cover any individual who has been, or is currently, incarcerated in either of the jails.

Attorneys on the case include NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Taylor Pendergrass, NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Corey Stoughton, and Daniel Laguardia, Melissa Godwin, Edward Timlin, and Sheila Jain of Shearman & Sterling LLP.