Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Seventh Circuit Reinstates First Amendment Class Action Lawsuit Against Indiana Jail

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Although the named plaintiff may no longer be an inmate there, his would-be class action lawsuit against an Indiana county jail is not moot, the Seventh Circuit held this week. Mark Olson alleges that Tippecanoe County Jail (TCJ) officials opened his legal mail outside of his presence, denied him access to the law library, and failed to respond to any of the 21 grievances he filed while he was incarcerated there in 2008-09. Olson filed a federal lawsuit against the sheriff in charge of the jail, alleging several violations of both the First Amendment and Indiana law. Olson also moved to certify the lawsuit as a class action, attaching affidavits from 53 other TCJ inmates with similar complaints.

Shortly after filing the suit, Olson was transferred out of TCJ by the Indiana Department of Corrections. As a result, the district court dismissed the lawsuit as moot. The Seventh Circuit reversed, and remanded the suit back to the district court for a decision on whether to certify the class, relying on the “inherently transitory” exception to the mootness doctrine. That is, even though Olson himself can’t benefit directly from the lawsuit anymore, there will always be some group of inmates at TCJ who may be suffering from the alleged pattern of violations:

The pervasive nature of these claims, as evidenced by the fifty-three affidavits outlining problems similar to those complained of by Olsen, makes it likely that TCJ’s alleged practices of opening inmates’ legal mail, denying inmates access to the law library, and failing to respond to inmates’ grievances will continue.

(Olson v. Brown, No. 09-2728, 7th Cir., Feb. 4, 2010, p. 13)

The mootness doctrine is rooted in Article III of the Constitution, which limits the jurisdiction of the federal courts to “cases and controversies.” Essentially, this just means that federal courts can only hear lawsuits in which both sides actually have a stake in the outcome. If something happens to eliminate a party’s interest in the outcome, there’s no longer a live controversy, the court no longer has jurisdiction, and the suit must be dismissed. Once Olson was transferred out of TCJ, his individual claims became moot, because he no longer has a legally cognizable stake in the outcome: Sure, he might feel a sense of satisfaction if the court rules in his favor, but he won’t actually get anything tangible out of it. An injunction that TCJ officials have to stop reading inmates’ legal mail won’t help him now that he’s no longer a TCJ inmate.

However, the Seventh Circuit held, even if his individual claims are moot, that doesn’t mean the class action lawsuit is moot. That’s because there’s an exception to the mootness doctrine — the “inherently transitory” exception — which kicks in when a class of plaintiffs seeks to sue in a situation where the precise make-up of the class is necessarily going to be changing all the time. Without some exception to the mootness doctrine for these situations, it would be nearly impossible for these types of plaintiffs to ever have their claims heard.

The county jail context is a quintessential example. As with most county jails, TCJ holds inmates who are awaiting trial, release on bail, or transfer to state custody, or who are serving a sentence of less than one year. As such, it has a steady inflow and outflow of inmates, and each inmate stays, on average, just 139 days (pp. 2-3). Since the population of a county jail is “inherently transitory,” it’s unlikely that any one plaintiff would remain there for the amount of time it takes for a federal district judge to go through the process of certifying a class. Yet, even though individual plaintiffs will move in and out, at any given time there will always be some group of people in the jail who could benefit from the lawsuit — or in legalese, “a constant class of persons suffering the deprivation complained of in the complaint” (p. 8). Thus, the lawsuit can continue, since — assuming that the district court actually certifies the class, which remains to be seen — there will always be some members of that class who have a stake in the lawsuit’s outcome.

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