Twelve John Does v. District of Columbia

Decision Date28 March 1988
Docket NumberNo. 87-5254,87-5254
Citation841 F.2d 1133,268 U.S.App.D.C. 308
Parties, 10 Fed.R.Serv.3d 1202 TWELVE JOHN DOES, et al. v. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al. Appeal of Edwin A. MEESE, III, Attorney General of the United States.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — District of Columbia Circuit

John D. Bates, Asst. U.S. Atty., with whom Joseph E. diGenova, U.S. Atty., Royce C. Lamberth, John Oliver Birch, John M. Facciola, and Bradley L. Kelly Asst. U.S. Attys., Washington, D.C., were on the brief, for appellant.

Peter J. Nickles, with whom Alan A. Pemberton and John F. Seymour, Washington, D.C., were on the brief, for appellees, Twelve John Does, et al.

Edward E. Schwab, Asst. Corp. Counsel, with whom Frederick D. Cooke, Jr., Acting Corp. Counsel, Charles L. Reischel, Deputy Corp. Counsel, Lutz Alexander Prager, Asst. Deputy Corp. Counsel, and Michael E. Zielinski, Trial Asst., Corp. Counsel, Washington, D.C., were on the brief, for appellee, District of Columbia.

Before RUTH BADER GINSBURG, D.H. GINSBURG, Circuit Judges, and ROBINSON, * Chief Judge.

Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge D.H. GINSBURG.

D.H. GINSBURG, Circuit Judge:

The Attorney General of the United States appeals from (1) a district court order reinstating him in this case, from which he had been dismissed as a defendant in 1980, and from (2) a preliminary injunction barring him from designating District of Columbia prisons as the place of confinement for prisoners convicted under the laws of the District in D.C. Superior Court. 668 F.Supp. 20.

The Attorney General was originally named as a defendant not only in this case, in which appellees challenge the constitutionality of the conditions in one of the prisons maintained by the District, but also in one of two other cases consolidated with it before the district court. Each of the three cases raises a similar challenge to one or more of the various D.C. prison facilities. The district court dismissed the Attorney General from both cases in which he had been named as a defendant, and the remaining parties thereafter negotiated consent decrees governing conditions at the prisons.

After the District had repeatedly violated the population limits imposed by the consent decrees, the district court granted appellees' motions to reinstate the Attorney General pursuant to Rule 60(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and to issue the preliminary injunction. Because we find that the district court improperly reinstated the Attorney General, we reverse.


This appeal is only the most recent chapter in the long history of litigation over the problem of overcrowding at the District of Columbia's prison facilities. Three civil actions, each involving a separate facility at the District's prison complex in Lorton, Virginia, are consolidated before the district court: 1 John Doe v. District of Columbia, No. 79-1726 (D.D.C.), was filed on behalf of inmates at the District's Maximum Security Institution ("Maximum"); Twelve John Does v. District of Columbia, No. 80-2136 (D.D.C.), involves prisoners at the Lorton Central facility ("Central"); and Inmates of Occoquan v. Barry, 650 F.Supp. 619 (D.D.C.1986), appealed docketed, No. 87-5055 (D.C.Cir. Jan. 14, 1988), was brought by inmates at the District's three Occoquan facilities ("Occoquan"). We will sketch only briefly the tortuous history of these cases, mentioning only the events that bear upon the disposition of this appeal.

The complaint in John Doe, which was filed in 1979, alleged that prisoners at Maximum were exposed to "unchecked violence" and a "pervasive risk of harm" as a result of improper prisoner classification, an inadequate and unqualified prison staff, and insufficient security measures that allowed inmates access to weapons, drugs and alcohol. The prisoners maintained that these conditions violated their right under the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. Because section 24-425 of the D.C. Code commits all prisoners convicted in the District to the custody of the Attorney General, and provides that he is to designate their places of confinement, the John Doe inmates also named the Attorney General as a defendant, alleging that he had failed to confine them in an "available, suitable, and appropriate" institution as required by the statute. 2 The complaint, which sought damages and injunctive relief, also named the District and various District officials as defendants.

The Attorney General immediately moved to be dismissed from the case on the grounds that he was immune from a suit for damages and that his duties under section 24-425 were purely technical. Shortly thereafter, in September of 1979, the district court granted his motion to dismiss. Plaintiffs did not seek certification of the court's order under Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(b), which would have allowed them immediately to appeal the dismissal of the Attorney General.

Less than a year later, in August of 1980, inmates housed at Central filed the complaint in Twelve John Does. They sought damages, injunctive relief, and a declaration that a number of prison conditions, including overcrowding, violated their Eighth Amendment rights; and like the John Doe plaintiffs, they sued not only the District and several District officials, but also the Attorney General, claiming that he had violated section 24-425 by failing to assign them to a suitable and appropriate institution.

In November of 1980, the Attorney General moved to be dismissed from Twelve John Does, advancing essentially the same arguments he had made in the earlier case. The plaintiffs filed an opposition, arguing that in order to remedy overcrowding, the Attorney General might be ordered to cease committing prisoners to Central pursuant to section 24-425. As in John Doe, however, the district court dismissed the Attorney General as a defendant; these plaintiffs, too, failed to request Rule 54(b) certification of the dismissal.

Following months of discovery and negotiation in both cases, and a trial and an appeal in John Doe, plaintiffs in both suits separately entered into consent decrees with the District. The consent decrees, which the district court approved in Twelve John Does in April 1982 and in John Doe in March 1984, require the District to undertake numerous specific reforms designed to improve prison conditions. Significantly, they also establish specific population limits for each facility--1166 inmates for Central and 536 for Maximum. The consent decree in Twelve John Does, moreover, explicitly recognizes that all its elements "rest fundamentally on the number of residents committed to the Central Facility."

Unfortunately, the consent decrees did not mark the end of this litigation. The district court's efforts over the last five years to monitor the decrees have been almost continually hampered by the failure of the District to abide by the terms of the decrees. The District has achieved only modest success in expanding the capacity of its prison system and in improving conditions at its current facilities. Until recently, however, the District had at least generally complied with the population limits imposed by the consent decrees. As the Honorable John D. Fauntleroy, a retired Judge of the D.C. Superior Court appointed to oversee the Twelve John Does decree, reported to the court in July, 1986, the District had managed to comply with the population limit at Central only by diverting inmates to the few D.C. prison facilities, such as Occoquan, that were not under court-imposed ceilings, which had the effect of overcrowding those facilities.

Less than ten days after Judge Fauntleroy issued his report, inmates at Occoquan rioted. In the aftermath of this disturbance, the Attorney General, who had recently accepted into federal prisons almost 1600 prisoners convicted of D.C. offenses, agreed to take roughly 300 more District inmates into federal facilities, and the inmates of Occoquan filed their case. Unlike the plaintiffs in John Doe and Twelve John Does, however, the Inmates of Occoquan plaintiffs did not name the Attorney General as a defendant, but sought relief solely from the District and its officials. The district court consolidated Inmates of Occoquan with John Doe and Twelve John Does in order to "address the prison overcrowding issue as a whole." After a full trial, the district court held that the conditions at the Occoquan facilities violated the inmates' Eighth Amendment rights, and ordered, among other things, that the District reduce to 1,281 the combined number of inmates at the three Occoquan facilities by June 1, 1987. Inmates of Occoquan, 650 F.Supp. at 634.

As the June 1 deadline approached, however, it became apparent that the District would violate the Occoquan population limit; and on May 20, 1987, the district court stayed the deadline and asked Judge Fauntleroy to recommend further means by which the overcrowding problem could be addressed. The population at Occoquan continued to swell over the course of the summer, and on July 20 peaked at 1,954, or more than 600 inmates over the population limit imposed by the district court. On July 13, the District notified counsel for the Central inmates that, because of transfers from Occoquan, the population cap on Central imposed by the Twelve John Does consent decree had also been exceeded.

Three days later, plaintiffs in Twelve John Does filed an Emergency Motion Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b) for Leave to Join the Attorney General as an Additional Defendant, and for Leave to File a Supplemental Complaint, along with motions seeking contempt sanctions against the District and temporary and preliminary injunctive relief against the Attorney General. The supplemental complaint alleged that the overcrowding at Central was at least in part the fault of the Attorney General, who concededly had the power to...

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