The Lawletter Vol 45 No 2
Juvenile offenders and their parents brought a civil rights action against the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and the Secretary of the Department, challenging the constitutionality of state-wide policies and practices of isolating juvenile offenders in solitary confinement, and alleging claims for disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") and the Rehabilitation Act. Their claims withstood a motion to dismiss. G.H. ex rel. Henry v. Marstiller, No. 4:19CV431‑MW/CAS, 2019 WL 6694738 (N.D. Fla. Dec. 6, 2019).
The source for the constitutional challenge was the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment in the Eighth Amendment. To support an Eighth Amendment challenge to conditions of confinement, the conditions must be objectively serious or extreme, that is, the prisoner must show that a condition of his confinement poses an unreasonable risk of serious damage to his future health or safety. In addition, the prisoner must show that the prison officials subjectively acted with "deliberate indifference" with regard to the conditions at issue. But it is also true that fundamental differences, including certain psychological and developmental differences, between adult prisoners and juvenile offenders are very significant in the Eighth Amendment context, requiring that juvenile offenders be treated differently from adult prisoners. Id. at *3.
In G.H., the plaintiffs stated a plausible Eighth Amendment claim based on allegations that the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice had a policy and practice of isolating juvenile offenders in solitary confinement, the effects of which were to deprive juvenile offenders of normal human contact, environmental stimulation, exercise, education, and basic sanitary conditions. These deprivations, in turn, subjected the juvenile offenders to an unreasonable risk of serious psychological and physiological harm. The Department officials had subjective knowledge of that risk from several sources: a prior suit challenging the use of solitary confinement in youth residential facilities, findings by the U.S. Department of Justice, and grievances from other juveniles. Despite this knowledge, the Department continued to place juveniles in solitary confinement.
The court found that the allegations were such as to "nudge Plaintiffs' claims across the line from conceivable to plausible," id. at *6, even though each one of the instances of knowledge, standing alone, may not have been enough to show that the defendants were deliberately indifferent to a substantial risk of harm. The plaintiffs had sufficiently alleged the three elements required for their constitutional claim: (1) defendants' subjective knowledge of a risk of serious harm, and (2) their disregard of that risk, (3) by conduct that is more than gross negligence. Id. at *5.
The disability discrimination claims under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act were based on plausible allegations that the policy and practice of the Department of Juvenile Justice of placing juvenile offenders in solitary confinement violated the ADA because juvenile offenders suffered from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and various other mental illnesses, which constitute "disabilities" under the ADA, and that the offenders were placed in solitary confinement and remained in isolation because of the behaviors related to their mental illnesses. In addition, Department officials failed to provide reasonable accommodations by failing to modify disciplinary rules and policies and procedures to account for the erratic behaviors of juveniles with mental illnesses. Id. at *7.
By such allegations, the plaintiffs satisfied each of the elements for an ADA claim. To state such a claim, a plaintiff must allege that (1) he is a qualified individual with a disability; (2) he was either excluded from participation in or denied the benefits of a public entity's services, programs, or activities, or was otherwise discriminated against by the public entity; and (3) the exclusion, denial of benefit, or discrimination was by reason of the plaintiff's disability. (With the exception of its requirement that the alleged disability discrimination occur in services, programs, or activities receiving federal financial assistance, the Rehabilitation Act uses the same standards as the ADA and, therefore, cases interpreting either are applicable and interchangeable. Id. at *6.)
In addition to denying dismissal of the claims based on their merits, as alleged by the plaintiffs, the court in G.H. declined to dismiss the complaint against the defendant Secretary of the Department in her official capacity. In part, the court reasoned that if it were to dismiss the constitutional claims brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Secretary, the plaintiffs effectively would be barred from seeking relief under § 1983. That is so because, generally, a state, a state agency, and a state official sued in her official capacity are not suable "persons" within the meaning of § 1983. But when prospective relief, including injunctive relief, is sought, as was the case in G.H., a state official sued in her official capacity is a person for purposes of § 1983. Id. at *1-2.