Filed Date: March 24, 2020
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COVID-19 Summary: Twelve particularly vulnerable immigration detainees filed this habeas petition and complaint on March 24, 2020. The Court granted release on March 31, holding that their ongoing detention was unlawfully punitive given the grave threat posed by congregate detention during the coronavirus pandemic. On April 17, the plaintiffs filed an amended complaint, seeking class certification for all civil immigrant detainees in the Middle District of PA over the age of 45 or with underlying health conditions. On April 27, the court granted in part and denied in part the plaintiffs' motion for preliminary injunction, ruling that the plaintiffs who were detained at Pike County Correctional Facility could remain free, but those who were detained at York County Prison and at Clinton County Correctional Facility were to return to detention. Based on evidence of a plaintiff contracting COVID-19, the court granted in part plaintiffs' motion for reconsideration, allowing the plaintiffs who are sick to remain free but ordering those who are asymptomatic to return to detention. A motion for classwide preliminary injunction is currently pending before the court.
On March 24, 2020, twelve civil immigration detainees held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at York County Prison (YCF), Clinton County Correctional Facility (CCCF), and Pike County Correctional Facility (PCCF) -- who because of their age or underlying medical conditions were particularly susceptible to serious illness or death in the event of a COVID-19 infection -- filed this habeas petition and complaint in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Represented by the ACLU National Prison Project, ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, ACLU of Pennsylvania, and private counsel, the plaintiffs sued the warden of the above-named detention facilities, the acting directors of ICE and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the director of ICE's Philadelphia Field Office. The plaintiffs alleged that the harm posed by continued detention in conditions insufficient to prevent the rapid transmission of COVID-19 violated their substantive due process rights under the Fifth Amendment. They sought a writ of habeas corpus ordering their immediate release or, in the alternative, injunctive relief ordering ICE to release them. The plaintiffs also sought attorney’s fees and cost and declaratory relief that "continued detention in civil immigration custody of individuals at increased risk for severe illness, including all people over ages forty-five and older and persons of any age with underlying medical conditions that may increase the risk of serious COVID-19, violates the Due Process Clause." The case was assigned to Judge John E. Jones.
This complaint was filed in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., which caused the state of Pennsylvania to declare a state of emergency. The outbreak resulted in unprecedented public health measures emphasizing and enforcing social distancing throughout the area, including the closure of non-essential businesses and a stay-at-home order for Philadelphia and surrounding counties. However, immigration detention facilities are “congregate environments,” or places where people live and sleep in close proximity and, thus, cannot practice recommended social distancing and good hygiene measures. Given the crowding and lack of adequate medical infrastructure, if COVID-19 were introduced into the detention facilities it would spread easily. The spread of COVID-19 (for which there is no vaccine, known treatment, or cure) would be especially dangerous for detainees over the age of 45 or those with certain underlying health conditions such as lung, heart, and kidney disease--characteristics that the plaintiffs possess. The plaintiffs asserted that "there is growing recognition among courts and even prison systems that release from detention is the only way to protect vulnerable detainees from COVID-19."
The plaintiffs asserted that the Fifth Amendment guarantees that civil detainees, including immigrant detainees with criminal backgrounds, may not be subjected to conditions that amount to punishment. The plaintiffs claimed that continued detention in the face of a potential COVID-19 outbreak in the facilities amounts to punishment because it serves no legitimate purpose, is not "rationally related to the enforcement of immigration laws," and "because their conditions of confinement place them at serious risk of being infected with COVID- 19 and Defendants are being deliberately indifferent to this critical safety concern." The plaintiffs argued that ICE has the authority to exercise discretion in releasing vulnerable civil immigrant detainees like the plaintiffs and ensure adequate conditions for their release. Lastly, plaintiffs contended that the "only course of action that can remedy these unlawful conditions is release from the detention centers where risk mitigation is impossible."
On the same day, the plaintiffs filed a motion for a temporary restraining order (TRO) and/or a preliminary injunction (PI) to enjoin "Defendants from continuing to detain Plaintiffs in violation of their constitutional rights." The plaintiffs argued that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their constitutional claim, that they are likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of a TRO/PI, and that the public interest weighs heavily in favor of a TRO/PI.
On March 27, the plaintiffs filed a factual update, informing the court that two of the plaintiffs had been released from PCCF.
On March 29, the defendants filed a response and opposition to the plaintiffs' petition for writ of habeas corpus and motion for TRO and/or PI. The defendants claimed that the plaintiffs lack standing, as the "Petitioners have not alleged that COVID-19 has affirmatively spread to the Pike, York, or Clinton county facilities." The defendants further argued that a "petition for habeas relief seeking immediate release is inappropriate in the context of a conditions of confinement claim." Finally, the defendants asserted that a TRO/PI is inappropriate because the plaintiffs did not establish that they were likely to succeed on the merits of their constitutional claim and that they did not demonstrate irreparable harm.
On March 31, Judge James issued a memorandum and order granting the plaintiffs' motion for TRO and directing defendants to immediately release plaintiffs that same day. Judge Jones also ordered that by April 7, 2020, the defendants show cause why the TRO should not be converted into a PI. In finding that a TRO was appropriate, Judge James concluded that the plaintiffs had standing to bring their claims despite no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the facilities; "'since '[a] remedy for unsafe conditions need not await a tragic event,' it is evident that the Petitioners have standing in this matter." Judge Jones further found that the plaintiffs had demonstrated irreparable injury, as they "have shown that adequate measures are not in place and cannot be taken to protect them from COVID-19 in the detention facilities, and that catastrophic results may ensue, both to Petitioners and to the communities surrounding the Facilities." Judge Jones held that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of their due process claim; "[c]onsidering the Facility conditions previously discussed, we can see no rational relationship between a legitimate government objective and keeping Petitioners detained in unsanitary, tightly-packed environments—doing so would constitute a punishment to Petitioners."
On April 7, the defendants filed their response to the court's order to show cause. The defendants contended that a habeas petition was not appropriate in this case, as the plaintiffs challenged their conditions of confinement, not the validity of their confinement. The defendants also proclaimed that the evidence demonstrates that "the Government has taken steps to protect the Petitioners’ safety and the safety of other detainees from prevention, uncontrollable spread, diagnoses, and treatment of COVID-19." Lastly, the defendants asserted that the balance of equities and public interest favored denying injunctive relief because release is not appropriate due to the plaintiffs' criminal or immigration backgrounds.
On April 13, Judge Jones issued an order extending the TRO until April 27. Judge Jones stated that this extension was warranted given the worsening situation of the COVID-19 pandemic and to give "both parties ample opportunity to augment the record before us prior to our decision on the issuance of a preliminary injunction."
A few days later, on April 17, the plaintiffs filed an amended complaint, requesting that the Court "certify a class of noncitizens at elevated risk of suffering severe health consequences or dying if they contract COVID-19, and to issue expedited relief." The plainitffs' proposed class was defined as: "all noncitizens who are now, or will in the future be, detained in ICE custody in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, and who have been diagnosed with, or are receiving treatment for, a preexisting medical condition and/or are over the age of 45." The plaintiffs asserted that, upon information and belief, "there are dozens more who are detained at the three ICE facilities who fit the class definition. The class is also fluid as individuals are regularly brought into the facilities as detainees." The amended complaint also added 11 civil immigrant detainees, who because of their age or underlying health conditions are at a high risk of severe illness or death if they were to contract COVID-19, as plaintiffs.
On April 27, Judge Jones issued a memorandum and order granting in part and denying in part the plaintiffs' motion to convert the TRO to a preliminary injunction. The preliminary injunction required that three of the named plaintiffs from Pike County Correctional Facility (PCCF) remain released until the end of the COVID-19 State of Emergency in Pennsylvania or social distancing guidelines are lifted. Judge Jones declined to grant the preliminary injunction with regard to plaintiffs from CCCF and YCP and required that they "voluntarily surrender themselves to the institution from which they were released."
As an initial matter, Judge Jones concluded that the plaintiffs could challenge their conditions of confinement through habeas and that the plaintiffs had standing, despite no named plaintiffs having contracted COVID-19. Furthermore, Judge Jones held because the conditions of confinement varied across facilities, only the plaintiffs held at PCCF were likely to succeed on the merits of their due process claim. Judge Jones also found that conditions at YCP and CCCF "had been adequately improved such that the Petitioners previously housed therein were no longer at risk of irreparable harm resulting from COVID-19." As of the filing of that order, there had been only one confirmed case between YCP and CCCF. 2020 WL 2025384.
The next day, plaintiffs filed an emergency motion for stay and reconsideration. The plaintiffs presented evidence that one of the plaintiffs who had been ordered to return to detention had been in the hospital for weeks, likely due to contracting COVID-19. The plaintiffs argued that "the timing of events makes it nearly certain that he contracted the virus while at CCCF." The same day, Judge Jones granted in part and denied in part the plaintiffs' motion for reconsideration. Judge Jones vacated the April 27 order and permitted the continued release for two of the named plaintiffs based on the evidence that they had contracted COVID-19. Judge Jones ordered that those plaintiffs who are asymptomatic return to detention
Later that day, the plaintiffs filed a motion for an emergency stay in the Third Circuit (No. 20-01906) and, in the district court, an emergency motion to stay pending appeal. The plaintiffs argued that the district court had reached an erroneous decision, "based on an incomplete record, a misunderstanding of the science behind the disease, and legal errors." The plaintiffs further asserted that the facilities had not conducted an adequate amount of tests to conclude that it was safe to return the plaintiffs to detention.
The next day, a Third Circuit panel denied the plaintiffs' motion for an emergency stay. The panel did not provide an explanation for its decision.
On May 1, the plaintiffs filed a motion for classwide preliminary injunction. The defendant's filed a motion in opposition on May 22. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss or to strike on June 15, requesting the court dispose of the 6 individual claims brought based on Zadvydas v. Davis. The plaintiffs filed a motion in opposition to this motion on June 22. The Clearinghouse does not have access to these documents, or many of the following documents.
On June 29, Judge Jones granted the defendants' motion to dismiss the individual claims under Zadvydas, stating that the plaintiffs could separately file individual habeas actions under 28 U.S.C. § 2241.
On July 8, the plaintiffs filed an Emergency Motion for Preliminary Injunction Enjoining Transfers of individual plaintiffs and a corresponding Brief of Support. Defendants moved for a Protective Order on July 13, which was granted in part and denied in part.
On July 14, the court issued an Order Referring Motion, where the defendants agreed to provide prior notice to plaintiffs' counsel before the transfer of any named class representative or putative class member. The plaintiffs' Emergency Motion for Preliminary Injunction Enjoining Transfers was referred to Magistrate Judge Martin Carlson for any appropriate proceedings, if necessary.
On July 21, the plaintiffs filed an Emergency Motion for Order to Show Cause Why Defendants Should not be Held in Contempt of Court for Violating Order Regarding Transfers. The next day, the court ordered defendants to arrange for direct communication with plaintiffs' counsel within 24 hours regarding transfers without prior notice in violation of the July 14 order.
On July 29, the plaintiffs filed a Brief in Support of Classwide Preliminary Injunction and Class Certification.
On August 3, the defendants filed a Brief in Opposition to the plaintiffs' July 21 Emergency Motion for Order to Show Cause Why Defendants Should not be Held in Contempt of Court for Violating Order Regarding Transfers.
On August 4, the defendants filed a Reply Brief to the plaintiffs' July 8 Motion for Preliminary Injunction Enjoining Transfers.
As of October 7, 2020, this case is ongoing.
Aaron Gurley (5/19/2020)
Caitlin Kierum (6/29/2020)
Mary Novakovic (10/7/2020)
For PACER's information on parties and their attorneys, see: https://www.courtlistener.com/docket/17014727/parties/thakker-v-doll/
Carlson, Martin C. (Pennsylvania)
Augustin, Jean Herdy (Pennsylvania)
Byerley, David J (District of Columbia)
Cho, Eunice (District of Columbia)
Butler, Michael J. (Pennsylvania)
Carlson, Martin C. (Pennsylvania)
Jones, John E. III (Pennsylvania)
See docket on RECAP: https://www.courtlistener.com/docket/17014727/thakker-v-doll/
Last updated Sept. 3, 2023, 3:02 a.m.
State / Territory: Pennsylvania
Filing Date: March 24, 2020
Case Ongoing: Yes
Civil immigration detainees who, due to age or preexisting medical conditions, are at especially high risk for serious illness or death in the event of a COVID-19 infection
Public Interest Lawyer: Yes
Filed Pro Se: No
Class Action Sought: Yes
Class Action Outcome: Pending
Causes of Action:
Special Case Type(s):
Prevailing Party: Mixed
Nature of Relief:
Source of Relief:
Content of Injunction:
Jails, Prisons, Detention Centers, and Other Institutions:
Type of Facility: