Case: Foster v. Commissioner of Corrections

20-12935 | Massachusetts state trial court

Filed Date: April 20, 2020

Case Ongoing

Clearinghouse coding complete

Case Summary

COVID-19 Summary: Prisoners represented by Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts filed this class action for prisoners with underlying medical conditions and old age, and prisoners incarcerated for alcohol and drug abuse, seeking release to decrease the population of prisoners and enable proper social distancing. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court denied the preliminary injunctive relief, but remanded to the Superior Court to adjudicate the merits of Eighth Amendment and Fourteenth Am…

COVID-19 Summary: Prisoners represented by Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts filed this class action for prisoners with underlying medical conditions and old age, and prisoners incarcerated for alcohol and drug abuse, seeking release to decrease the population of prisoners and enable proper social distancing. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court denied the preliminary injunctive relief, but remanded to the Superior Court to adjudicate the merits of Eighth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment claims brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.


On April 20, 2020, prisoners incarcerated in Massachusetts correctional facilities filed this class-action lawsuit against the Commissioner of the the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, the chair of the Parole Board, and the Governor. The prisoners, represented by Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts, sued on behalf of all prisoners incarcerated in Massachusetts prisons and jails, included two subclasses: (1) All prisoners who are at high risk for serious complication or death from COVID-19 due to underlying medical condition or age, and (2) all prisoners civilly committed to a correctional facility for treatment of an alcohol or substance use disorder. Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the plaintiffs alleged violations of the Eighth And Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution; they also alleged violations of the Massachusetts Constitution. They brought the case before Judge Elspeth Cypher of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court before proceeding before the full court.

The plaintiffs sought attorneys' fees and injunctive relief ordering the defendants to release putative class-members in order to achieve social distancing within the facilities. Concurrently, the plaintiffs filed a motion for preliminary injunctive relief seeking the release of class members.The plaintiffs alleged that the state failed to enable social distancing in correctional facilities because the prisons and jails do not have the requisite space to comply with CDC-recommended guidelines. Additionally, the facilities were allegedly "filthy and unsanitary," further exacerbating the risk of disease spread. While the plaintiffs sought release of all class members to enable adequate social distancing, those with underlying medical conditions or old age were particularly vulnerable to severe complications if they contracted COVID-19.

The state officials filed a motion to dismiss on April 24, 2020. Oral argument was heard before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on May 7. The plaintiffs noted that 358 Massachusetts inmates had already tested positive for COVID-19 and articulated their request for population reduction, although they could not provide an exact number that would achieve the social distancing guidelines. The defendants, meanwhile, argued that they had already taken steps to limit the disease's spread and would continue to monitor the situation. Additionally, the plaintiffs' Fourteenth Amendment claim alleged that incarceration for substance abuse during COVID-19 violated substantive due process rights and did not advance the legislative goal of treatment.

On June 2, 2020, the Supreme Judicial Court denied the plaintiffs' motion for preliminary relief. 484 Mass. 698 (2020). In an opinion written by Judge Gaziano, the Court noted the steps taken by the corrections facilities already including increased emphasis on sanitation, physical distancing where possible, testing, and quarantining. With regards to the plaintiffs' Eighth Amendment claim, the Court found that the objective component was satisfied, but said that plaintiffs failed to satisfy the subjective component of the test for liability--deliberate indifference-- because the plaintiffs could not identify how the correctional facilities were not in compliance with CDC interim guidelines for prisons and jails. Regarding the plaintiffs' Fourteenth Amendment claims, the Court found that the "significant steps" taken to lessen the risk of transmissions were sufficient to preclude a finding that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of their claim. However, the Court did acknowledge that continued incarceration for substance abuse was questionable given pandemic. Therefore, the Court ordered that any individual who is committed pursuant to G. L. c. 123, § 35 (Commitment of alcoholics or substance abusers) may file a motion for reconsideration of the commitment order. The Court did not decide whether class certification should be granted, but rather remanded the issue to the Superior Court for resolution.

The same day, the Court granted in part and denied in part the defendants' motion to dismiss. 484 Mass. 1059 (2020). The Court granted the Governor's motion to dismiss, finding that the Governor could not be held liable for things he had not done, and determining that the Court could not order the Court to utilize his emergency powers. The Court dismissed the claims against the parole board that related to the commitment of alcoholics and substance abusers, but denied the motion to dismiss for other claims against the parole board. The Court noted that, if the parole board failed to exercise its statutory authority to remedy a constitutional violation, the Court had power to order such action.

The SJC docket page does not have live links to filings, but they are available here.

As of June 14, the case is ongoing before the state Superior Court.

Summary Authors

Justin Hill (6/14/2020)

People


Judge(s)

Budd, Kimberley S. (Massachusetts)

Gants, Ralph D (Massachusetts)

Gaziano, Frank M (Massachusetts)

Lenk, Barbara A. (Massachusetts)

Attorneys(s) for Plaintiff

Horrell, Michael (Massachusetts)

Matos, Elizabeth D. (Massachusetts)

Milton, David (Massachusetts)

Pingeon, James R. (Massachusetts)

Tenneriello, Bonita (Massachusetts)

Attorneys(s) for Defendant

Arslanian, Vanessa Azniv (Massachusetts)

Judge(s)

Budd, Kimberley S. (Massachusetts)

Gants, Ralph D (Massachusetts)

Gaziano, Frank M (Massachusetts)

Lenk, Barbara A. (Massachusetts)

Attorneys(s) for Plaintiff

Horrell, Michael (Massachusetts)

Matos, Elizabeth D. (Massachusetts)

Milton, David (Massachusetts)

Pingeon, James R. (Massachusetts)

Tenneriello, Bonita (Massachusetts)

Attorneys(s) for Defendant

Arslanian, Vanessa Azniv (Massachusetts)

Byrne, Michael R. (Massachusetts)

Dietrick, Stephen G. (Massachusetts)

McManus, Ryan P. (Massachusetts)

Moore, Michael Patrick Jr. (Massachusetts)

Murphy, Pamela (Massachusetts)

White, Nancy Ankers (Massachusetts)

Other Attorney(s)

Pritchard, Tatum A. (Massachusetts)

Rollins, Rachael Splaine (Massachusetts)

Segal, Matthew (Massachusetts)

Documents in the Clearinghouse

Document

20-12935

Docket

Foster v. Mici

Massachusetts state supreme court

June 2, 2020

June 2, 2020

Docket

2084CV00855

Docket

Foster v. Mici

June 19, 2020

June 19, 2020

Docket

SJ-2020-0212

Emergency Motion for Preliminary Injunctive Relief (and Memorandum in Support of Motion)

Foster v. Mici

Massachusetts state supreme court

April 17, 2020

April 17, 2020

Pleading / Motion / Brief

SJ-2020-0212

Class Action Complaint

Foster v. Mici

Massachusetts state supreme court

April 17, 2020

April 17, 2020

Complaint

20-12935

Answer of Defendants, Carol Mici and Thomas Turco, to Plaintiffs' Class Action Complaint

Foster v. Mici

Massachusetts state supreme court

April 24, 2020

April 24, 2020

Pleading / Motion / Brief

20-12935

Motion to Dismiss of Defendant Governor Charles D. Baker

Foster v. Mici

Massachusetts state supreme court

April 24, 2020

April 24, 2020

Pleading / Motion / Brief

20-12935

Opinion

Foster v. Commissioner of Correction

Massachusetts state supreme court

146 N.E.3d 408, 2020 WL 2844407

June 2, 2020

June 2, 2020

Order/Opinion

20-12935

Opinion

Foster v. Commissioner of Correction

Massachusetts state supreme court

146 N.E.3d 372, 2020 WL 2844516

June 2, 2020

June 2, 2020

Order/Opinion

Resources

Docket

Last updated July 28, 2022, 3:01 a.m.

Docket sheet not available via the Clearinghouse.

Case Details

State / Territory: Massachusetts

Case Type(s):

Prison Conditions

Special Collection(s):

COVID-19 (novel coronavirus)

Key Dates

Filing Date: April 20, 2020

Case Ongoing: Yes

Plaintiffs

Plaintiff Description:

Massachusetts prisoners suing on behalf of all prisoners incarcerated in Massachusetts prisons and jails, included two subclasses: (1) All prisoners who are at high risk for serious complication or death from COVID-19 due to underlying medical condition or age, and (2) all prisoners civilly committed to a correctional facility for treatment of an alcohol or substance use disorder.

Plaintiff Type(s):

Private Plaintiff

Attorney Organizations:

Prisoners' Legal Services of Massachusetts

Public Interest Lawyer: Unknown

Filed Pro Se: No

Class Action Sought: Yes

Class Action Outcome: Pending

Defendants

Commissioner of Corrections, State

Governor, State

Chair of the Parole Board, State

Defendant Type(s):

Corrections

Jurisdiction-wide

Case Details

Causes of Action:

42 U.S.C. § 1983

State law

Constitutional Clause(s):

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Due Process

Due Process: Substantive Due Process

Special Case Type(s):

Appellate Court is initial court

Availably Documents:

Trial Court Docket

Complaint (any)

Any published opinion

Outcome

Prevailing Party: None Yet / None

Nature of Relief:

None yet

Source of Relief:

None yet

Content of Injunction:

Preliminary relief denied

Issues

General:

Conditions of confinement

Sanitation / living conditions

Crowding:

Crowding / caseload

COVID-19:

Mitigation Denied

Mitigation Requested

Release Denied

Release Requested

Type of Facility:

Government-run