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Friday, December 8, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Third Circuit Revives |Inmate Class Action

(CN) — A federal prisoner can represent a class of inmates in a prison special protection unit even though he was removed from it six weeks after filing his lawsuit, the Third Circuit ruled.

Sebastian Richardson was a prisoner at the U.S. Penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where he was immediately placed in the special management unit program.

The program is intended to house inmates with special security concerns — individuals with past histories of violence, or gang related activity — to ensure they are not placed in a cell with known enemies.

Once in the program, inmates are rotated between cells every three weeks, sometimes getting a new cellmate in the process.

However, Richardson claims the program does not work as intended at USP Lewisburg. Rather, prison officials frequently place inmates in cells with hostile cellmates, increasing their risk of serious injury.

After seven months of living with a compatible cellmate, Richardson claims prison staff ordered him to "cuff up" on the cell door so a new inmate could be transferred to this cell.

Richardson refused to cuff up after finding out that his new cellmate would be a man known to his fellow prisoners as "the Prophet," who had attacked over 20 former cellmates.

Looking out for his own safety had serious repercussions for Richardson, according to his December 2011 complaint.

Richardson was allegedly stripped naked, dressed in paper clothes and held in hard restraints for a month. He also claims he was forced to sleep on the floor, and frequently refused the use of a shower or toilet.

Between January 2008 and July 2011, there have been 272 reported incidents of inmate-on-inmate violence at the prison, he claims.

Richardson filed a class action against USP Lewisburg officials, seeking a change in the prison's alleged unwritten policy that encourages intra-inmate violence.

However, he was soon transferred out of the special management unit, and the prison officials claim that he may no longer serve as a class representative for prisoners in the SMU.

A federal judge agreed Richardson lacked standing, but the Third Circuit reversed the decision Friday.

Precedent establishes that "when a would-be class representative is not given a 'fair opportunity' to show that certification is warranted (perhaps because her individual claim became moot before she could reasonably have been expected to file for class certification), she should be permitted to continue seeking class certification for some period of time after her claim has become moot," Judge D. Brooks Smith said, writing for the three-judge panel.

Otherwise, class action litigation would devolve into a race between the parties to see who could act first — plaintiffs in moving for class certification, or defendants in mooting those claims.

"Richardson was transferred out of USP Lewisburg's SMU program a mere six weeks after he filed his amended complaint," which clearly did not give him enough time to file for class certification, Smith said.

The judge continued, "Whatever the outer bounds may be, it is clear that if a defendant acts to moot a would-be class representative's claim within six weeks of the filing of a class action complaint, that plaintiff did not have a fair opportunity to present his case for class certification to the District Court."

The court also "excuse[d]" Richardson's failure to file a motion for class certification because the class certification question was raised by the defendants and responded to by Richardson within seven weeks of filing his complaint, so the issue was squarely before the court.

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