124 F.3d 162 (2nd Cir. 1997), 928, Benjamin v. Jacobson

Docket Nº:928, Docket 96-7957.
Citation:124 F.3d 162
Party Name:James BENJAMIN, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Michael JACOBSON, Commissioner of the Department of Correction of the City of New York, Defendant-Appellee.
Case Date:August 26, 1997
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

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124 F.3d 162 (2nd Cir. 1997)

James BENJAMIN, Plaintiff-Appellant,


Michael JACOBSON, Commissioner of the Department of

Correction of the City of New York, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 928, Docket 96-7957.

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

August 26, 1997

Argued Nov. 15, 1996.

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John Boston, The Legal Aid Society Prisoners' Rights Project, New York City (Daniel L. Greenberg, Sarah Kerr, Dori A. Lewis, Marta Nelson, of counsel), for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Lorna B. Goodman, Corporation Counsel's Office, New York City (Paul A. Crotty, Corporation Counsel, June R. Buch, Laura A. Chamberlain, Florence A. Hutner, Elizabeth I. Freedman, of counsel), for Defendant-Appellee.

Sarah L. Shudofsky, Assistant United States Attorney, Southern District of New York (Mary Jo White, United States Attorney, Southern District of New York, Frank W. Hunger, Assistant Attorney General, Civil Division, Department of Justice, James L. Cott, Assistant United States Attorney, Southern District of New York, Robert M. Loeb, Appellate Staff, Civil Division, Department of Justice, of counsel), for Amicus Curiae Intervener United States of America.

Before: OAKES and CALABRESI, Circuit Judges, and HAIGHT, District Judge. [*]

CALABRESI, Circuit Judge.


This case concerns the applicability of the recently enacted Prison Litigation Reform Act, Pub.L. No. 104-134, 110 Stat. 1321 (1996) (the "PLRA" or the "Act"), to a set of consent decrees and supplemental orders (collectively the "Consent Decrees") entered into by New York and by pre-trial detainees in the New York City jails. The main question before us is the constitutionality of a provision of the PLRA under which motions can be made for the immediate termination of "prospective relief" mandated by the Consent Decrees. 18 U.S.C. § 3626(b). After determining that the termination provision was constitutional, the district court below vacated the Consent Decrees. Benjamin v. Jacobson, 935 F.Supp. 332 (S.D.N.Y.1996).

We agree that the termination provision is constitutional. We specify, however, that section 3626(b) is clearly constitutional only if it is interpreted as simply constricting the jurisdiction of the federal courts to enforce the Consent Decrees, rather than as annulling those Decrees. We therefore reverse the court's decision below to the extent that

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it vacated the Consent Decrees, and note that, while the defendants may be entitled to immediate termination of prospective relief from the federal courts, there is nothing to prevent the plaintiffs from seeking the enforcement of the Consent Decrees in state courts. We further note that the plaintiffs are now entitled to an evidentiary hearing to determine whether any prospective federal court relief is warranted under section 3626(b)(3), which provides that prospective relief shall not terminate if the court makes written findings that the relief "remains necessary to correct a current or ongoing violation of [a] Federal right" and is narrowly drawn to remedy that violation.

* * *

The plaintiffs in this case and six related cases 1 are pre-trial detainees. 2 They first brought suit in 1975, alleging that conditions in the New York City jails violated their constitutional rights. The original 1978-79 decrees at issue here were formulated to address and remedy those conditions of confinement. These decrees have generated a judicially administered structure comprising over ninety related court orders and extending to more than thirty discrete areas of prison administration. The areas include the handling of detainees' mail and property, cell and body searches, maintenance of the physical plant, food service, and health and sanitary issues. Each decree was approved by the court in which it was pending, and the decrees were consolidated for enforcement before district judge Morris E. Lasker. In 1982, pursuant to the agreement of the parties, a court monitoring agency called the Office of Compliance Consultants ("OCC") was created. The OCC has monitored compliance with the Consent Decrees since that time.

On April 26, 1996, the President signed the PLRA into law. The statute was passed in part to answer the criticism that federal courts had overstepped their authority in the context of prison litigation. Benjamin, 935 F.Supp. at 340. The Act responded by, inter alia, amending 18 U.S.C. § 3626 to establish new standards for the entry and termination of "prospective relief" in civil actions concerning conditions in prisons, jails, and juvenile detention facilities.

Three sections of the PLRA are relevant for our purposes--section 3626(a)(1)(A) (the "prospective relief" provision), section 3626(b) (the "termination" provision), and section 3626(e)(2)(A)(i) (the "automatic stay" provision). Under the prospective relief provision, the district court is not permitted to "grant or approve any prospective relief unless the court finds that such relief is narrowly drawn, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right [of a particular plaintiff or plaintiffs], and is the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right." 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(1)(A). Under the termination provision, a defendant or intervener is entitled to "immediate termination of prospective relief" in cases where a court had originally granted such relief without making the findings that are now mandatory under section 3626(a). 18 U.S.C. § 3626(b)(2). Prospective relief may continue, however, if the court "makes written findings based on the record that prospective relief remains necessary to correct a current or ongoing violation of the Federal right, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right, and that the prospective relief is narrowly drawn and the least intrusive means to correct the violation." 18 U.S.C. § 3626(b)(3). Finally, the statute contains an automatic stay provision that requires a court--beginning 30 days from the filing of a motion to terminate all prospective relief--to stay such prospective relief pending the court's decision on the

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underlying motion. 18 U.S.C. § 3626(e)(2)(A)(i).

By an opinion and order entered July 23, 1996, the district court held that the termination provision of the PLRA was constitutional, and vacated the Consent Decrees pursuant to that provision. See Benjamin, 935 F.Supp. at 358. 3 Five other courts have upheld the constitutionality of the termination provision. See Gavin v. Branstad, 122 F.3d 1081 (8th Cir.1997); Plyler v. Moore, 100 F.3d 365 (4th Cir.1996), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 117 S.Ct. 2460, 138 L.Ed.2d 217 (1997); James v. Lash, 965 F.Supp. 1190 (N.D.Ind.1997); Jensen v. County of Lake, 958 F.Supp. 397 (N.D.Ind.1997); Inmates of the Suffolk County Jail v. Sheriff of Suffolk County, 952 F.Supp. 869 (D.Mass.1997). One court has struck down the termination provision as violating separation of powers principles. Hadix v. Johnson, 947 F.Supp. 1100 (E.D.Mich.1996). Three courts have struck down the automatic stay provision on separation of powers and due process grounds. Glover v. Johnson, 957 F.Supp. 110 (E.D.Mich.1997); Hadix v. Johnson, 933 F.Supp. 1362 (W.D.Mich.1996); Hadix v. Johnson, 933 F.Supp. 1360 (E.D.Mich.1996).


As an initial matter, we note that the fundamental issue presented in this appeal is the constitutional challenge to the termination provision. Although the plaintiffs ask that we consider the constitutionality of the Act as a whole, we decline that invitation. 4 The termination provision was the only ground on which the defendants moved to vacate the Consent Decrees, and hence is the sole provision we consider on appeal. See Benjamin, 935 F.Supp. at 343. 5

Our inquiry into whether the termination provision is constitutional is complicated by the fact that the provision is ambiguous. It states:

Immediate termination of prospective relief.--In any civil action with respect to prison conditions, a defendant or intervener shall be entitled to the immediate termination of any prospective relief if the relief was approved or granted in the absence of a finding by the court that the relief is narrowly drawn, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right, and is the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right.

18 U.S.C. § 3626(b)(2).

This language can be read in either one of two ways, each of which, if constitutionally valid, would respond to the criticisms that led to the PLRA. The first interpretation would limit the jurisdiction of federal courts so that these courts could not in the future enforce past consent decrees, except insofar as the

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decrees were found to be tailored to a federal right. The second would render null and void all past federally approved prison consent decrees unless these decrees met the requirement of being narrowly tailored to a federal right. The first reading takes Congress as having focused on the perceived evils that flow from the involvement of federal courts in the minutiae of state prison administration. It therefore interprets the relevant section as putting these courts out of that business, while leaving past agreements, entered into by the parties, in place to be enforced by state courts acting under state law. The second reading, instead, would also get federal courts out of the state prison consent decree business, but through more drastic measures, namely, by annulling the underlying agreements themselves. It would wipe them out despite the fact that the parties had originally--and freely--consented to them, presumably in exchange for some adequate consideration that they received from the other...

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