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Case Name Foster v. Commissioner of Corrections PC-MA-0053
Docket / Court SJC-12935 ( State Court )
State/Territory Massachusetts
Case Type(s) Prison Conditions
Special Collection COVID-19 (novel coronavirus)
Attorney Organization Prisoners' Legal Services of Massachusetts
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 ... read more >
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.

Justin Hill - 06/14/2020


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Issues and Causes of Action
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Issues
Constitutional Clause
Cruel and Unusual Punishment
Due Process
Due Process: Substantive Due Process
Content of Injunction
Preliminary relief denied
COVID-19
Mitigation Denied
Mitigation Requested
Release Denied
Release Requested
Crowding
Crowding / caseload
Defendant-type
Corrections
Jurisdiction-wide
General
Conditions of confinement
Sanitation / living conditions
Plaintiff Type
Private Plaintiff
Special Case Type
Appellate Court is initial court
Type of Facility
Government-run
Causes of Action 42 U.S.C. § 1983
State law
Defendant(s) Chair of the Parole Board
Commissioner of Corrections
Governor
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.
Indexed Lawyer Organizations Prisoners' Legal Services of Massachusetts
Class action status sought Yes
Class action status outcome Pending
Filed Pro Se No
Prevailing Party None Yet / None
Public Int. Lawyer Unknown
Nature of Relief None yet
Source of Relief None yet
Filed 04/20/2020
Case Ongoing Yes
Court Docket(s)
State Supreme Court
06/02/2020
SJC-12935
PC-MA-0053-9000.pdf | Detail
Source: State Court Website
State Trial Court
06/19/2020
2084CV00855
PC-MA-0053-9001.pdf | Detail
Source: State Court Website
General Documents
State Supreme Court
04/17/2020
Class Action Complaint
PC-MA-0053-0001.pdf | Detail
Source: State Court Website
State Supreme Court
04/17/2020
Emergency Motion for Preliminary Injunctive Relief (and Memorandum in Support of Motion)
PC-MA-0053-0002.pdf | Detail
Source: State Court Website
State Supreme Court
04/24/2020
Motion to Dismiss of Defendant Governor Charles D. Baker
PC-MA-0053-0003.pdf | Detail
Source: State Court Website
State Supreme Court
04/24/2020
Answer of Defendants, Carol Mici and Thomas Turco, to Plaintiffs' Class Action Complaint
PC-MA-0053-0004.pdf | Detail
Source: State Court Website
State Supreme Court
06/02/2020
Opinion (146 N.E.3d 372)
PC-MA-0053-0005.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Source: Google Scholar
State Supreme Court
06/02/2020
Opinion (146 N.E.3d 408)
PC-MA-0053-0006.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Source: Google Scholar
show all people docs
Judges Budd, Kimberley S. Court not on record show/hide docs
PC-MA-0053-0005
Gants, Ralph D Court not on record show/hide docs
PC-MA-0053-0005
Gaziano, Frank M Court not on record show/hide docs
PC-MA-0053-0005
Lenk, Barbara A. (State Supreme Court) show/hide docs
PC-MA-0053-0005
Plaintiff's Lawyers Horrell, Michael (Massachusetts) show/hide docs
PC-MA-0053-0001 | PC-MA-0053-0002 | PC-MA-0053-9000 | PC-MA-0053-9001
Matos, Elizabeth D. (Massachusetts) show/hide docs
PC-MA-0053-0001 | PC-MA-0053-0002 | PC-MA-0053-9000 | PC-MA-0053-9001
Milton, David (Massachusetts) show/hide docs
PC-MA-0053-0001 | PC-MA-0053-0002 | PC-MA-0053-9000 | PC-MA-0053-9001
Pingeon, James R. (Massachusetts) show/hide docs
PC-MA-0053-0001 | PC-MA-0053-0002 | PC-MA-0053-0005 | PC-MA-0053-0006 | PC-MA-0053-9000 | PC-MA-0053-9001
Tenneriello, Bonita (Massachusetts) show/hide docs
PC-MA-0053-0001 | PC-MA-0053-0002 | PC-MA-0053-9000 | PC-MA-0053-9001
Defendant's Lawyers Arslanian, Vanessa Azniv (Massachusetts) show/hide docs
PC-MA-0053-9000 | PC-MA-0053-9001
Byrne, Michael R. (Massachusetts) show/hide docs
PC-MA-0053-0005 | PC-MA-0053-0006 | PC-MA-0053-9000
Dietrick, Stephen G. (Massachusetts) show/hide docs
PC-MA-0053-0004 | PC-MA-0053-0005 | PC-MA-0053-0006 | PC-MA-0053-9000 | PC-MA-0053-9001
McManus, Ryan P. (Massachusetts) show/hide docs
PC-MA-0053-0003 | PC-MA-0053-0005 | PC-MA-0053-0006 | PC-MA-0053-9000 | PC-MA-0053-9001
Moore, Michael Patrick Jr. (Massachusetts) show/hide docs
PC-MA-0053-0003 | PC-MA-0053-9000 | PC-MA-0053-9001
Murphy, Pamela (Massachusetts) show/hide docs
PC-MA-0053-9000 | PC-MA-0053-9001
White, Nancy Ankers (Massachusetts) show/hide docs
PC-MA-0053-0004 | PC-MA-0053-9000
Other Lawyers Pritchard, Tatum A. (Massachusetts) show/hide docs
PC-MA-0053-9000
Rollins, Rachael Splaine (Massachusetts) show/hide docs
PC-MA-0053-9000
Segal, Matthew (Massachusetts) show/hide docs
PC-MA-0053-0006 | PC-MA-0053-9000

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