Filed Date: March 30, 2020
Closed Date: April 19, 2021
Clearinghouse coding complete
COVID-19 Summary: This is a class action lawsuit brought by prisoners at a geriatric prison run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The plaintiffs alleged violations of their Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, as well as violations of the ADA and Rehabilitation Act by failing to make reasonable accommodations to protect the plaintiffs from COVID-19. They won a district court order requiring compliance with CDC recommendations, but the Fifth Circuit vacated the preliminary injunction on June 5, noting that the defendant had substantially complied with the measures required by the injunction. The court granted class certification on June 27 and denied to dismiss the case on July 2. The case proceeded to trial and on September 29, the district court granted ordered a permanent injunction requiring the defendants to take numerous safeguards, including, sufficient cleaning supplies, enforcement of social distancing, proper use of personal protective equipment by staff, testing measures, and creation of a contact tracing plan. On October 13, the Fifth Circuit granted the defendants' emergency motion to stay the injunction. Two prisoners filed an application to vacate the stay with the Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court denied the request on November 16. On March 26, 2021, the Fifth Circuit reversed the judgment of the district court and rendered judgment for the defendants.
On March 30, 2020, two prisoners held at Texas Department of Criminal Justice ("TDCJ") Pack Unit filed this class-action lawsuit against the executive director of TDCJ, the warden of TDCJ Pack Unit, and TDCJ itself. The plaintiffs, represented by private counsel, filed their complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas; the case was assigned to Judge Keith Ellison. The plaintiffs sued the defendants under § 1983 for violations of their Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights protecting them from cruel and unusual punishment. They also alleged that the defendants violated the ADA and Rehabilitation Act by failing to provide reasonable accommodations to protect the plaintiffs from COVID-19. The plaintiffs sought attorneys' fees and declaratory and injunctive relief in the form of a temporary restraining order. The preliminary and permanent injunctive relief sought included unrestricted access to antibacterial hand soap and towels, access to hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, and increased cleaning of common areas and surfaces. The plaintiffs also sought to prohibit new prisoners from entering Pack Unit, quarantining new prisoners for 14 days, or testing new prisoners for COVID-19 to prevent greater risk of contraction for current prisoners. Finally, the plaintiffs requested the defendant to post signage in common areas with updates about COVID-19 and recommendations to protect oneself.
Pack Unit is a Type-I geriatric prison and houses a large number of prisoners over 50 years old or with serious pre-existing health conditions. Plaintiffs sought to represent a class of all inmates who currently are, or who in the future will be, incarcerated at the Pack Unit, and who are subjected to the TDCJ’s policies and practices regarding COVID-19. The plaintiffs also proposed two subclasses: the “High-Risk Subclass,” and the “Disability Subclass.” The High-Risk Subclass intended to represent those who, according to the CDC, are most at risk of severe illness from COVID-19 due to old age or health conditions. The Disability Subclass consisted of those who suffer from a disability that substantially limits one or more of their major life activities and who are at increased risk of COVID-19 illness, injury, or death due to their disability or any medical treatment necessary to treat their disability.
The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants’ policies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic were woefully inadequate and did not comport with many of the CDC’s recommendations. These discrepancies include TDCJ’s prohibition on alcoholic hand sanitizer and the CDC’s recommendation to consider relaxing such protocols. The plaintiffs allege that these inadequate policies, combined with their vulnerability and the facility’s congregate nature, place prisoners and the surrounding communities at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.
On April 16, after hearing oral arguments, Judge Ellison granted the plaintiff's application for a temporary restraining order as a preliminary injunction. 2020 WL 1916883. The order enjoined the defendant as follows:
The following day, the defendants appealed the order to the Fifth Circuit and Judge Ellison granted a five-day stay of the preliminary injunction. 2020 WL 1916883. On April 22, the Fifth Circuit stayed the preliminary injunction pending completion of appellate review of it. 956 F.3d 797. In a per curiam opinion by Judges Jones, Higginson, and Oldham, the court of appeals found that the plaintiffs had failed to show a “substantial risk of serious harm” that amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment,” "after accounting for the protective measures TDCJ has taken." In addition, the court criticized the district court's failure to "cite . . . evidence that [state officials] subjectively believe the measures they are taking are inadequate." The appellate court also found that plaintiffs had not yet exhausted the possibilities of the prison's internal grievance system and therefore that the case was premature, and that the preliminary relief was insufficiently narrow to satisfy the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).
The plaintiffs filed an emergency application to the U.S. Supreme Court to vacate the stay on May 4. The plaintiffs argued that the Fifth Circuit did not defer to the trial court's fact findings, and that the stay risked exactly the type of irreparable harm the the district court intended to prevent. The Supreme Court denied the application, but Justice Sotomayor wrote a statement in which Justice Ginsburg joined. Justice Sotomayor wrote, "It has long been said that a society’s worth can be judged by taking stock of its prisons. That is all the truer in this pandemic, where inmates everywhere have been rendered vulnerable and often powerless to protect themselves from harm. May we hope that our country’s facilities serve as models rather than cautionary tales.” 140 S.Ct. 1598.
Back in the district court, the defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss on April 22, 2020, making three different arguments. First, the defendants argued that the plaintiffs lacked standing since they failed to demonstrate an actual or imminent injury, and therefore the complaint should be dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction under FRCP 12(b)(1). Second, the defendants argued that the complaint should be dismissed for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6), since the plaintiffs did not allege facts demonstrating that the defendants acted with deliberate indifference to the plaintiffs' health or safety, thereby failing to state an Eighth Amendment claim. Third, the defendants argued that the plaintiffs failed to state a claim under the ADA and RA because the ADA does not apply in exigent circumstances, and the plaintiffs have not alleged discrimination.
After a second prisoner tested positive for COVID-19, the plaintiffs filed an emergency motion to identify the prisoner on April 24. The plaintiffs argued that the prisoner's identity could allow for contact tracing in lieu of comprehensive testing of all prisoners. The plaintiffs also sought the identification within 48 hours of all future prisoners confirmed to have COVID-19. The defendants opposed the motion, arguing that discovery was not open and therefore the Court had no authority to grant an order compelling production. With regards to the identification of future COVID-19 patients, the defendants argued that such preliminary injunctive relief was not warranted in light of the Fifth Circuit's finding that the plaintiffs were not likely to succeed on the merits.
The defendants filed a Motion to Stay Discovery on May 7. They argued that discovery was premature because the defendants' interlocutory appeal was still pending in the Fifth Circuit, and there were other pending preliminary issues including the defendant's Motion to Dismiss.
On May 13, the plaintiffs filed a Motion to Certify Class. They proposed a general class and a subclass, and identified a class period as the present day until protections against COVID-19 are no longer necessary. The general class consisted of all current and future inmates incarcerated in the Wallace Pack Unit who are subjected to TDCJ's policy of failing to provide protection from exposure to COVID-19 for the class period. The high-risk subclass included all current and future inmates incarcerated at Wallace Pack Unit who are subjected to TDCJ's policy of failing to provide protection from exposure to COVID-19 during the class period and who are, according to the CDC, most at risk of severe illness due to their age or health conditions.
On June 5, the Fifth Circuit vacated the preliminary injunction, finding that the defendant had substantially complied with the measures required by the injunction. 2020 WL 3026717. Judge Eugene Davis “reluctantly” concurred, noting that the lack of social distancing for the elderly and ill was “nothing short of a human tragedy.”
A group of individuals in the custody of the TDCJ, but housed in a different unit, sought to intervene on June 10. On June 12, the defendants opposed the plaintiff's motion for class certification and argued that the TDCJ’s grievance process was available to the plaintiffs, and that the plaintiffs had substantially received their requested relief through the grievance process. The defendants argued that they provided hand sanitizer, mass testing for COVID-19, offender movement for those when medically necessary, and quarantine procedures. On June 25, three additional individuals sought to intervene.
On June 27, the district court granted the plaintiff's motion for class certification. 2020 WL 3491999.
On June 30, the defendants sought to postpone the July 13 trial date to October 12, claiming that the current trial date is untenable due to the amount of discovery needed. However, the motion was denied on July 2. 2020 WL 3625730. The court noted that the COVID-19 crisis continued in the Pack Unit, Texas, and the United States, with the number of inmates in Pack Unit who have tested positive and who have died growing. The same day, the court denied the defendant's motion to dismiss, finding that the plaintiffs had plead facts that state a claim of deliberate indifference under the Eighth Amendment, as well as claims under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act.
On July 6, the court addressed the three motions to intervene filed by individuals incarcerated at TDCJ prisons other than the Pack Unit and denied all three motions. 2020 WL 3666614. Although the court recognized that the intervenors shared common questions of law and fact with the plaintiffs of the case, the court also noted the lack of time for the defendants to engage in full discovery and briefing for the intervenors, the differences in issues of fact with the current plaintiffs, and the additional claims of relief raised by the intervenors.
The defendants moved for summary judgment on July 9, arguing that the plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies under the PLRA, and that the plaintiffs could not meet their burden under the ADA and their burden of showing the defendants' deliberate indifference.
On July 21, the plaintiffs moved to certify two additional subclasses; a Disability Subclass and a Mobility-Impaired Subclass.
A bench trial is being held between July 13 and mid-August. On July 27, an individual incarcerated at the W.J. Estelle Prison submitted a motion for joinder. The motion was denied on July 31, as he was not in the same unit as the plaintiffs of the case and therefore was not a party in this case.
In a status report by the plaintiffs on August 31, the plaintiffs note that TDCJ’s website identifies 14 active cases within the Pack Unit, and at least four of the infected inmates were tested but were not advised of their status or removed from their dormitory for four days.
On September, 29, 2020 the court granted the plaintiffs’ request for a permanent injunction. 2020 WL 5797881. In its opinion, the court first certified the Mobility-Impaired Sublcass, but not the Disability Subclass. The Mobility-Impaired Subclass included “[a]ll current and former inmates incarcerated at [TDCJ] Wallace Pack Unit who suffered from a disability that substantially limits one or more of their major life activities, are subjected to TDCJ and the Texas Correctional Managed Health Care Committee’s policy and practice of failing to provide exposure to Covid-19 during the class period, and who require the use of a walker, cane, or wheelchair to ambulate.” The court rejected the defendants’ argument that the plaintiffs failed to exhaust administrative remedies as required by the PLRA and found that the plaintiffs demonstrated that the existing TDJC grievance process was incapable of responding to a rapidly spreading pandemic like COVID-19.
The court found violations of the Eighth Amendment, the ADA, and the Rehab Act. It held that the defendants demonstrated deliberate indifference towards the plaintiffs in violation of the Eighth Amendment in two ways. First, it found that the defendants demonstrated deliberate indifference by failing to adopt a systematic approach to addressing COVID-19. Second, the defendants acted with deliberate indifference to plaintiffs’ medical needs by failing to take obvious precautionary public health measures on which all medical professionals would agree. On the ADA and Rehab Act claims, the court found that TDCJ’s decision to not issue hand sanitizer to the Mobility-Impaired Subclass violated the ADA and Rehab Act because it failed to reasonably accommodate their disabilities.
Under the permanent injunction, the court ordered the defendants to provide unrestricted hand soap and clean towels, as well as hand sanitizer to the mobility impaired subclass. In addition, the court ordered numerous other safeguards, including sufficient cleaning supplies, training on additional cleaning practices, the creating of plans to allow for regular sanitizing, enforcement of social distancing, proper use of personal protective equipment by staff, testing measures, and creation of a contact tracing plan.
That same day, TDCJ appealed the permanent injunction to the Fifth Circuit (docket no.: 20-20525). The district court denied TDCJ’s motion to stay the injunction, so TDCJ filed an emergency motion asking the Fifth Circuit to stay the injunction pending appeal and for a temporary administrative stay while the emergency motion was under consideration. On October 6, the Fifth Circuit administratively stayed the permanent injunction.
The Fifth Circuit (Circuit Judges Don R. Willett, James C. Ho, Stuart Kyle Duncan) then granted the emergency motion to stay the injunction on October 13, 2020. 978 F.3d 154. The Fifth Circuit found that TDCJ was likely to succeed on the merits of its appeal because the plaintiffs failed to comply with the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement by failing to use the prison’s internal grievance process before filing suit. In addition, even if the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement was met, the Fifth Circuit found that the plaintiffs’ likely fail on their Eighth Amendment claim as well because the district court did not focus on whether or not TDCJ responded reasonably to the risks of COVID-19 and instead focused on the impact of COVID-19. The Fifth Circuit found that TDCJ would be irreparably harmed absent a stay by hindering TDCJ’s flexibility to address an ever-changing situation. Finally, the Fifth Circuit found that the balance of the harms and the public interest favored the defendants because the COVID-19’s incidence at TDCJ was reduced without court intervention or oversight and the public interest favors having politically accountable officials—not federal judges—determine how to allocate resources.
On October 21, two inmates filed an application with the Supreme Court to vacate the Fifth Circuit’s stay of the permanent injunction pending appeal. The Supreme Court denied the application to vacate on November 16. 592 U.S. ---. Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Kagan, dissented from the denial of application to vacate the stay. Justice Sotomayor would have found that the Fifth Circuit demonstrably erred in both their analysis of the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement and the merits of the Eighth Amendment claims, noting that the Fifth Circuit substituted its own view of the facts for those of the District Court.
Back in the District Court, numerous plaintiffs filed motions for leave to file amended complaints in late October. On November 10, the plaintiffs also moved for a temporary restraining order. Judge Ellison denied the motions because the trial had concluded and the court had issued its findings of fact and conclusions of law.
On March 26, the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court's permanent injunction and rendered judgment for the defendants. 993 F.3d 270.
In determining whether the the actions of the defendants constituted unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain and therefore deliberate indifference in violation of the Eighth Amendment, the appellate court found that the record did not support a finding that either of the defendants' actions constituted deliberate indifference. The court found that the policy implemented by the TDJC was crafted by healthcare experts who were given that responsibility under state law. The court also found that the prison's policy went into effect in March 2020, when knowledge about the virus was unclear and before the Pack Unit had its first positive case. A second iteration of the prison's policy adopted CDC guidance four days after the guidance was released. The court concluded that it was not unreasonable for the defendants to rely on healthcare experts who were delegated the responsibility of crafting COVID-19 policies and that the policies adopted were reasonable since they were in accordance with the CDC's guidance.
Despite the fact that the prison's testing plan and contract-tracing procedures were not documented in writing, the appellate court declined to hold that this showed that the defendants acted with deliberate indifference. The court also found that the lack of a compliance regime did not constitute deliberate indifference since state prisons are not required to implement additional layers of administration.
The Fifth Circuit disagreed that the two month delay in mass testing of the Pack Unit constituted deliberate indifference, since defendant Collier gave the plausible reason that the prison's medical partner did not have sufficient testing supplies to test the entire Pack Unit in April 2020. While the district court found that the tests chosen by the prison took too long to obtain results, the appellate court found that defendant Collier's failure to explore faster options did not indicate deliberate indifference since the record did not indicate that Collier was personally able to secure quicker tests. Contrary to the district court's finding that the prison's inconsistent strike-team testing amounted to deliberate indifference, the appellate court found that the defendants did not respond recklessly in choosing and implementing their tests given the circumstances at the time.
The appellate court also disagreed with the district court on its finding of deliberate indifference regarding social distancing. Despite the fact that defendant Herrera delayed in moving inmates into two empty dorms, the appellate court found that injunctive relief was not appropriate since the prison did start using those dorms one month after construction was completed.
The appellate court also did not find that Herrera and Collier were reckless in their response to prisoner complaints about the prison officers' failure to wear masks since their complaints were too general. While evidence at trial supported a finding of lack of sinks, the appellate court noted that handwashing stations were installed by the defendants before and during trial.
Overall, the appellate court noted that injunctive relief is forward looking, and that given the defendants' response over the course of the litigation, a permanent injunction was not warranted under the Eighth Amendment. On the plaintiffs ADA claims, the court found that the plaintiffs failed to show that they identified their disability, the disability's limitations, and the necessary accommodation they sought and therefore vacated the district court's injunction regarding hand sanitizer for the mobility-impaired subclass.
After rendering judgment for the defendants, the case is now closed.
Justin Hill (5/13/2020)
Averyn Lee (9/25/2020)
Emily Kempa (11/17/2020)
Nicholas Gillan (4/16/2021)
For PACER's information on parties and their attorneys, see: https://www.courtlistener.com/docket/17024308/parties/valentine-v-collier/
Bangert, Ryan Lee (Missouri)
Black, Victor Jewell (Texas)
Bradley, Meria (Texas)
Calles, Jose (Texas)
Campbell, Lamarr Antwain (Texas)
Davis, W. Eugene (Louisiana)
Duncan, Stuart Kyle (Louisiana)
Ellison, Keith P. (Texas)
Ginsburg, Ruth Bader (District of Columbia)
Graves, James Earl Jr. (Mississippi)
Higginson, Stephen Andrew (Louisiana)
Ho, James Chiun-Yue (Texas)
Jones, Edith Hollan (Texas)
Oldham, Andrew Stephen (Texas)
Sotomayor, Sonia (District of Columbia)
Stewart, Carl E. (Louisiana)
Willett, Don R. (Texas)
See docket on RECAP: https://www.courtlistener.com/docket/17024308/valentine-v-collier/
Last updated Oct. 18, 2023, 3:06 a.m.
State / Territory: Texas
Filing Date: March 30, 2020
Closing Date: April 19, 2021
Case Ongoing: No
Inmates in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Pack Unit - including a proposed General Class, a High-Risk Subclass and a Mobility-Impaired Subclass.
Public Interest Lawyer: No
Filed Pro Se: No
Class Action Sought: Yes
Class Action Outcome: Pending
Causes of Action:
Prevailing Party: Defendant
Nature of Relief:
Source of Relief:
Content of Injunction:
Jails, Prisons, Detention Centers, and Other Institutions:
Disability and Disability Rights:
Type of Facility: