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Yates v. Collier

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

August 18, 2017


          Opinion Field Date August 21, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas

          Before REAVLEY, ELROD, and GRAVES, Circuit Judges.


         This appeal presents yet another chapter in a long saga of challenges to conditions of confinement in prisons throughout this circuit. The plaintiffs are inmates in the Wallace Pack Unit, a prison operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. They allege violations of the Eighth Amendment, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act due to the high temperatures in the prison housing areas. Plaintiffs sought, and the district court granted, certification of a general class and two subclasses, and the defendants now appeal. Because we conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion, we AFFIRM.


         The six named Plaintiffs are inmates in the Wallace Pack Unit, a prison operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). Plaintiffs brought this lawsuit in 2014 against TDCJ, Bryan Collier (TDCJ's executive director), and Roberto Herrera (the Pack Unit's warden) (collectively, the Defendants). The Pack Unit houses approximately 1, 400 inmates. Though portions of the Pack Unit are air-conditioned, it is undisputed that the inmate housing areas are not. During the summer months, indoor temperatures within the Pack Unit housing area can reach 100 degrees and consistently exceed 90 degrees. TDCJ is aware of these high temperatures as it routinely monitors the outdoor apparent temperatures at the Pack Unit during the summer months. Acknowledging that these high temperatures are a potential risk to the health and safety of the inmates in the Pack Unit and in an effort to reduce the risk from these high temperatures, Defendants claim that they provide certain "heat-mitigation" measures-including more frequent showers, cold drinking water, fans, and temporary access to air-conditioned "respite areas" outside the housing area.

         Up until this lawsuit was filed, TDCJ's policy regarding mitigation measures remained largely unchanged, despite the heat-related injuries occurring within the Pack Unit and in various other Texas prisons. Indeed, since 1998, twenty or more inmates have died as a result of excessive heat. This history led the district court to conclude that, "as a factual matter, " there was a "significant history of serious heat related illnesses" within the Pack Unit. Only in 2015, after this lawsuit was filed, did TDCJ begin its respite-area practice.

         Of the six named Plaintiffs, only one is younger than 60 years old and has no medical conditions that would affect his sensitivity to heat. The remaining five named Plaintiffs range in age from 60 to 72 years and all have one or more conditions that render them particularly sensitive to heat, including Type II diabetes, coronary arterial disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, hypertension, schizoaffective disorder, and obesity.

         Plaintiffs assert two causes of action. First, they assert an Eighth Amendment claim against Collier and Herrera. Second, they claim that TDCJ has failed to provide reasonable accommodations for inmates with heat-sensitive disabilities in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. Plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment and a permanent injunction requiring defendants to "maintain a safe indoor apparent temperature (e.g., maintaining a heat index of 88 degrees or lower) inside each of the Pack Unit's housing areas . . . or enter other injunctive relief sufficient to protect the health and safety of the prisoners at the Pack Unit."[1]

         Plaintiffs moved to certify three classes, one general class and two subclasses:

General Class: All inmates who currently are, or in the future will be, incarcerated at the Pack Unit, and who are subjected to TDCJ's policy and practice of failing to regulate high indoor heat index temperatures in the housing areas.
Heat-Sensitive Subclass: All people who are incarcerated at the Pack Unit, or in the future will be, that are subjected to TDCJ's policy and practice of failing to regulate high indoor heat index temperatures in the housing areas, and either: (1) have a physiological condition that places them at increased risk of heat-related illness, injury, or death (including, but not limited to, suffering from obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, psychiatric conditions, cirrhosis of the liver, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cystic fibrosis, asthma, sweat gland dysfunction, and thyroid dysfunction); or, (2) are prescribed an anticonvulsant, anticholinergic, antipsychotic, antihistamine, antidepressant, beta blocker, or diuretic; or (3) are over age 65.
Disability SubClass: All people incarcerated at the Pack Unit, or who will be in the future, that are subjected to TDCJ's policy and practice of failing to regulate high indoor heat index temperatures in the housing areas and suffer from a disability that substantially limits one or more of their major life activities and who are at increased risk of heat-related illness, injury, or death due to their disability or any medical treatment necessary to treat their disability.

         The district court certified all three classes. It concluded that Plaintiffs sufficiently demonstrated that they met all requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(a). It then determined that certification was authorized under Rule 23(b)(2). Last, the district court rejected Defendants' argument that the Prison Litigation Reform Act-which directs that prospective relief in the prison context "shall extend no further than necessary to correct the violation, " 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(1)(A)-must be applied as part of the Rule 23(b)(2) analysis.

         Defendants moved under Rule 23(f)[2] for authorization to appeal the district court's certification order, and this court granted the motion.


         "We review the district court's decision to certify a class for an abuse of discretion." M.D. ex rel. Stukenberg v. Perry, 675 F.3d 832, 836 (5th Cir. 2012) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. AT&T Corp., 339 F.3d 294, 301 (5th Cir. 2003)). "A trial court abuses its discretion when its ruling is based on an erroneous view of the law or a clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence." Bocanegra v. Vicmar Servs., Inc., 320 F.3d 581, 584 (5th Cir. 2003). This deference stems from "a recognition of the essentially factual basis of the certification inquiry and of the district court's inherent power to manage and control pending litigation." Perry, 675 F.3d at 836. Nonetheless, this broad discretion must operate "within the framework of Rule 23, " and we "review de novo whether the district court applied the correct legal standards." Id. (citations omitted).


         It is well-established in our circuit "that the Eighth Amendment guarantees inmates a right to be free from exposure to extremely dangerous temperatures without adequate remedial measures." Hinojosa v. Livingston, 807 F.3d 657, 669 (5th Cir. 2015). Over the past several years, we have decided numerous appeals arising from cases in which inmates have challenged the heat levels within prisons located throughout this circuit. We have repeatedly upheld district court findings that the heat levels within these prisons violate the Eighth Amendment, and we have done so in the context of a class action in at least one case.

         In Gates v. Cook, 376 F.3d 323 (5th Cir. 2004), we upheld a permanent class-wide injunction based on the Eighth Amendment, which required the Mississippi Department of Corrections to "provide fans, ice water, and daily showers when the heat index is 90 degrees or above, " id. at 339-40, even though most of the inmates had the benefit of industrial sized fans as well as smaller personal fans. Id. at 334. Summer temperatures in the area averaged above 90° Fahrenheit, and the ventilation within the facility was "inadequate to afford prisoners a minimal level of comfort during the summer months, " and the inmates were "not afforded extra showers, ice water, or fans . . . when the heat index [was 90° Fahrenheit] or above." Id. Similarly, in Ball v. LeBlanc, 792 F.3d 584 (5th Cir. 2015), we affirmed the district court's finding that the heat within a prison housing area posed a substantial risk of serious harm to inmates, where the heat index ranged from 81.5° Fahrenheit to 107.79° Fahrenheit and surpassed 100° Fahrenheit on five or more days during a roughly two week period. Id. at 590-91, 592-94. We did so even though the inmates had continued access to potable water and ice, and despite the defendant's argument that "because it provide[d] the remedies [upheld in Gates], there can be no Eighth Amendment violation as a matter of law." Id. at 590, 592. And in Blackmon v. Garza, 484 F.App'x 866 (5th Cir. 2012), we reversed the grant of judgment as a matter of law in favor of TDCJ officials. Id. at 874. Though recognizing that TDCJ had taken some remedial steps, such as providing cool ice water three times a day and allowing extra showers, we concluded this was insufficient to justify judgment in TDCJ's favor. We relied in part on the fact that "[t]here was no air-conditioning, " "the windows were sealed, " the unit "did not have a water fountain, " and "the inmates were not able to use personal fans, " though there was a large industrial fan available. Id. at 871-72.

         Indeed, TDCJ officials are, or have been, defendants in numerous other cases alleging Eighth Amendment violations based on excessive heat in prison. See, e.g., Hinojosa, 807 F.3d at 661 (deciding appeal involving TDCJ prisoner who suffered a seizure at night due to high indoor temperatures, "[fell] out of his bed and was convulsing, " and died twenty minutes later); Webb v. Livingston, 618 F.App'x 201, 204 (5th Cir. 2015) (deciding appeal involving the "heat-related deaths of five prisoners who died while housed in facilities operated by [TDCJ]"); Valigura v. Mendoza, 265 F.App'x 232, 233-34 (5th Cir. 2008) (deciding appeal involving prisoner who alleged that "temperatures in the bunk area reached into the nineties and hundreds due to poor ventilation" and that "he was not able to use the restroom or showers without lengthy waits, which caused him severe discomfort").

         In short, we have repeatedly recognized the serious risk of harm that excessive heat can pose in the prison context absent adequate mitigating measures, and we have consistently found evidence sufficient in these cases to support an Eighth Amendment violation, even when certain mitigating measures were available. It is against this backdrop that we now address the discrete issue presented in this appeal: whether the district court erred in certifying the General Class and the two subclasses.

         Defendants challenge only two of the class certification criteria. First, they assert that the district court erred in concluding that Plaintiffs demonstrated a common question of law or fact for each of the classes.[3] Second, Defendants argue that the district court erred in concluding that the proposed classes could be certified under Rule 23(b)(2). As part of this second argument, Defendants reassert their contention that the Prison Litigation Reform Act precludes certification in this case. We discuss each in turn.



         Rule 23(a) states that a class may be certified "only if . . . there are questions of law or fact common to the class." Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(a)(2). At first blush, it might seem that Rule 23(a)(2)'s requirement can be easily satisfied. After all, "any competently crafted class complaint literally raises common questions." Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338, 349 (2011) (alteration omitted) (quotation marks omitted). As the Supreme Court has indicated, however, Rule 23(a)(2) demands that the putative class members' claims "must depend upon a common contention" that "must be of such a nature that it is capable of class-wide resolution-which means that determination of its truth or falsity will ...

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