Filed Date: April 28, 2014
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An incarcerated individual in the custody of the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) filed this lawsuit on April 28, 2014, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, on behalf of a class of similarly situated individuals, against the Director of the MDOC and the general dentist of the MDOC (in their official capacities). MDOC policy detailed that a person became eligible for routine dental care only after being incarcerated for two years. The plaintiff alleged that the denial of routine dental care constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Specifically, the plaintiff argued that MDOC was deliberately indifferent to incarcerated persons’ dental needs and thus caused serious health complications. Plaintiff sought declaratory and injunctive relief. The plaintiff was represented by a private attorney and the Michigan State law school's civil rights clinic; the case was assigned to Judge Laurie J. Michelson.
The MDOC divided dental services into three categories: emergency (delay in treatment may result in death or permanent impairment), urgent (conditions medically necessary in the opinion of a qualified medical professional) and routine (anything non-urgent or non-emergent). In 2013, the MDOC instituted the policy of providing routine dental services only after two years of uninterrupted incarceration. The rule reduced the wait list for dental care by 75% from 8,000 to 2,000 people.
On February 2, 2015, the court allowed the plaintiff to amend his complaint to include five other named plaintiffs incarcerated in different facilities operated by MDOC. On February 3, 2015, the plaintiffs filed a motion seeking class certification of one “General Class” and five subclasses. The General Class constituted all prisoners confined in MDOC facilities, including those who were confined in MDOC facilities but located in local jails, denied dental care and treatment. The five subclasses referred to were individuals: (1) to whom dental care was denied due to the written policy not providing routine dental care until at least two years after arrival at the prison; (2) who are within one year of release date and denied dental care because of a different written policy; (3) whose teeth are in need of repairs but are only given the option of extraction; (4) whose dentures or bridge(s) were worn out, broken, or lost and replacement was denied based on another written policy of the defendant; and (5) who have been incarcerated more than two years and are not within one-year of release, and who have lost natural teeth that require replacement.
The magistrate judge recommended class certification on August 11, 2015. The defendants objected to all aspects of the magistrate judge’s report and recommendation, prompting review of the report by the district judge. On September 25, 2015, the district judge denied without prejudice the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification and rejected the magistrate judge’s report. The court denied the motion for three primary reasons: (1) plaintiffs failed to offer sufficient proof of their as-applied claims constituting a systemic issue; (2) plaintiffs might not have been adequate class representatives and their claims might have been atypical of those they sought to represent; and (3) plaintiffs may have failed the definiteness requirement, also referred to as ascertainability, for the class definitions. The judge also reminded counsel of the court’s civility principles in discovery. 2015 WL 5634446.
The defendants were given leave to move for summary judgment multiple times. On November 6, 2015, the magistrate judge recommended that the named plaintiffs who were no longer incarcerated be dismissed from the case. 2015 WL 10521551. On March 17, 2016, the district judge adopted this recommendation and dismissed the cases of the plaintiffs no longer incarcerated. 2016 WL 1060449.
The magistrate judge further recommended granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on January 19, 2016 in large part because all of the named plaintiffs except for the first one failed to complete the MDOC’s formal grievance process before bringing the case, which meant that many of the plaintiffs did not comply with the exhaustion requirement of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). Specifically, the magistrate judge found that because none of the plaintiffs’ grievances named the general dentist, plaintiffs did not properly exhaust their claims against her. 2016 WL 8231172. Defendants objected to the magistrate judge’s finding because she did not address the broader argument that plaintiffs’ claims were more comprehensively unexhausted since they did not complete the grievance process with respect to all of their claims, rather than merely the claims against the general dentist, before commencing the action. The district judge rejected the recommendation to dismiss due to a failure to name all defendants. Referring to a similar Sixth Circuit holding, the district judge found that MDOC officials could not complain about the defect during litigation when the MDOC had previously overlooked or forgave a procedural defect. Further, because failure to exhaust is an affirmative defense, defendants bore the burden of convincing the court that no reasonable jury could find that plaintiffs exhausted their claims. 2016 WL 1253266.
On March 28, 2017, one of the named defendants filed a motion to dismiss or for summary judgment on the claims of two of the plaintiffs as moot due to a failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The district judge noted the odd timing of the motion, with discovery related to class certification ongoing and the defendants already having filed a motion for summary judgment. Despite plaintiffs claiming that they were unable to exhaust remedies because the dental staff never informed them of their diagnosis of periodontal disease, the district judge was unpersuaded that MDOC prevented plaintiffs from being able to exhaust administrative remedies. Plaintiffs’ claims that MDOC violated the Eighth Amendment by (1) denying necessary dental care during the first two years of incarceration; and (2) denying periodontal care were dismissed. The district judge reiterated her earlier urging that the parties work together to crystalize the class claims. 2017 WL 4038890.
On July 14, 2017, the plaintiffs again filed a class certification motion. The motion was renewed on September 18, 2017. One day later, the plaintiffs withdrew their class certification motion while one of the named defendants filed a motion for an evidentiary hearing on the issue of exhaustion of administrative remedies.
Plaintiffs filed their fourth amended complaint on January 14, 2018 with a broader list of named plaintiffs. In their response on February 22, 2018, defendants reiterated the following assertions: (1) plaintiffs failed to exhaust their available administrative remedies; (2) plaintiffs’ claims were moot, making them unsuitable as class representatives; and (3) class certification would be improper because the proposed classes lacked commonality.
Plaintiffs filed a class certification motion on March 2, 2018, which was granted in part and denied in part by the district judge on February 13, 2019. The district judge’s order noted that the MDOC had revised policies for tracking and treating periodontal disease according to some of the alternatives outlined in plaintiffs’ expert report. Proposed Class I, consisting of all prisoners with fewer than two years of consecutive incarceration (approximately half of all people imprisoned in the MDOC), was found to be too broad and likely to include significant variation in dental health. The court held that the lack of class certification did not preclude plaintiffs from pursuing their claim that the MDOC’s two-year rule violated the Eighth Amendment. Applying the same reasoning to Class IVA (all prisoners on the Routine Dental Appointment List), the court denied class certification as to that class. 330 F.R.D. 452.
The district judge found that plaintiffs’ proposed Class II (imprisoned people who do not receive proper treatment for periodontal disease) was “more a statement about alleged wrongful conduct than a statement about which prisoners are members of proposed Class II,” and created two revised classes, both of which were certified. Class IIA was defined as “prisoners incarcerated in an MDOC correctional facility who have caries that have reached the dentin or have early (or worse) periodontitis.” Class IIA’s claim was understood as exposure to a substantial risk of serious harm of which defendants were aware through a failure to use additional diagnostic techniques. Class IIB was defined as “all prisoners incarcerated in an MDOC correctional facility.” Class III (all imprisoned people who requested and qualified for dentures) and Class IVB (all prisoners whom the MDOC had identified as awaiting urgent dental care) were also both certified. 330 F.R.D. 452.
Plaintiffs agreed on October 9, 2019 to remove several of the named plaintiffs as class representatives, leaving only four class representatives with certified class claims. Two pro se pleadings to join the plaintiffs were filed on December 6 and 9, 2019 and were later withdrawn on January 15, 2020.
On September 21, 2020, plaintiffs filed a motion for reconsideration on the refusal to certify a class of all prisoners in the MDOC’s custody and to expand Classes IIA and IIB to include all prisoners. On August 20, 2021, the court granted the motion in part, redefining Class IIB as “all prisoners incarcerated in an MDOC correctional facility with healthy gums or gingivitis” and created Class IIC, which was defined as “All prisoners incarcerated in an MDOC correctional facility with early, moderate, or advanced periodontitis who have not received all necessary scaling and root planing and follow-up treatment.” 2021 WL 3700867.
On February 23, 2022, the court dismissed the claim of Class IVB (those awaiting urgent dental care) at the request of both parties.
MDOC filed a motion for summary judgment and motion to dismiss in part on August 22, 2022. The plaintiffs filed their own motion for summary judgment on August 29, 2022.
The court issued an opinion on January 26, 2023, denying the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment and granting in part MDOC's motion for summary judgment. The court held that one of the named plaintiffs’ facial challenge to the two-year rule was moot since that plaintiff was not subject to the rule anymore; the court also noted that the claim would likely fail on the merits because the plaintiff had not shown the rule was unconstitutional in every situation. The court denied summary judgment as to Class IIC’s deliberate indifference claim because there was still a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether MDOC dentists completed certain dental procedures, such as scaling and root planing, as treatment for periodontitis. There was also a dispute of material fact as to whether people in Class IIC were at “a substantial risk of serious harm,” as periodontitis progresses differently depending on how early it is caught, each individual’s oral hygiene routine, and if and when treatment begins. Thus, Class IIC’s Eighth Amendment claim on inadequate treatment of periodontitis would proceed to trial. 2023 WL 424259.
As to Class IIA’s Eighth Amendment claims, the court found that there was a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the defendants had been deliberately indifferent to the risk of serious harm to the class members in failing to perform certain tests to determine if the inmates had periodontitis. For Class IIB, the court held that claims by class members with gingivitis who had not yet served two years would proceed to trial, but dismissed claims for class members who had served two years and for those who had inadequate-diagnosis claims. The court also dismissed claims from people in Class IIB with healthy gums because not having a cleaning for two and a half years, or not receiving tests that would lead to a periodontitis diagnosis, did not create a substantial risk for them. Lastly, the court dismissed the plaintiffs’ Class III claim that MDOC took too long to provide dentures because the plaintiffs did not properly address the issue in their brief.
The court held settlement conferences on January 30 and March 16, 2023. Later that year, on October 12, the court entered a stipulated order approving the settlement notice and notice plan. As part of the settlement, all class members were eligible to receive: routine dental services as 12 months of continuous incarceration within the MDOC, periodontal screening and recording at dental intake, and treatment for periodontitis. In addition, the settlement agreement stipulated that MDOC will update their dental policies and manual to be consistent with this settlement agreement and provide updates every 180 days for two years to plaintiffs' counsel so they can determine if "material terms of the settlement agreement are being met." Lastly, the settlement agreement required MDOC to pay $600,000 in attorney's fees, with costs of litigation (such as expert fees, depositions, and filing fees) to be paid by the attorneys out of this amount.
Multiple objections to the settlement have since been filed. As of November 8, 2023, the case is ongoing.
Hannah Juge (3/28/2022)
Venesa Haska (10/30/2023)
For PACER's information on parties and their attorneys, see: https://www.courtlistener.com/docket/4292463/parties/bownes-v-washington/
Barkman, Cori E. (Michigan)
Dalzell, Kathryn M. (Michigan)
Dean, Michael R. (Michigan)
Donnelly, Mark E. (Michigan)
Farrell, James T. (Michigan)
Michelson, Laurie Jill (Michigan)
See docket on RECAP: https://www.courtlistener.com/docket/4292463/bownes-v-washington/
Last updated Dec. 6, 2023, 3:30 p.m.
State / Territory: Michigan
Filing Date: April 28, 2014
Case Ongoing: Yes
Individuals incarcerated in the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) who have been denied routine dental care.
Public Interest Lawyer: Yes
Filed Pro Se: No
Class Action Sought: Yes
Class Action Outcome: Granted
Causes of Action:
Prevailing Party: Plaintiff
Nature of Relief:
Source of Relief:
Form of Settlement:
Amount Defendant Pays: $600,000
Jails, Prisons, Detention Centers, and Other Institutions:
Type of Facility: