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Reaves v. Department of Correction

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

August 19, 2019




         Defendants' move to stay the execution of the Court's August 1, 2019 judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 62(c) pending the disposition of post-judgment motions. (Docket No. 317). The Supreme Court has concluded that the relevant factors when deciding to issue a stay pending appeal “are generally the same” for a district court and for a court of appeals. Hilton v. Braunskill, 481 U.S. 770, 776 (1987). These factors are:

(1) Whether the stay applicant has made a strong showing that he is likely to succeed on the merits; (2) whether the applicant will be irreparably injured absent the stay; (3) whether issuance of the stay will substantially injure the other parties interested in the proceeding; and (4) where the public interest lies.

Id. I find that Defendants have not made a strong enough showing to succeed under the first factor. Even assuming they have, the remaining Hilton factors tip heavily against issuing a stay.

         1. First Factor

         “When the request for a stay is made to a district court, common sense dictates that the moving party need not persuade the court that it is likely to be reversed on appeal. Rather, with regard to the first prong of the Hilton test, the movant must only establish that the appeal raises serious and difficult questions of law in an area where the law is somewhat unclear.” Canterbury Liquors & Pantry v. Sullivan, 999 F.Supp. 144, 150 (D. Mass. 1998).

         Defendants' argue that a three-judge panel must have approved the release of Mr. Reaves. They are incorrect. A three-judge panel is required for prisoner release orders. The PLRA defines a “prisoner release order” to “include[ ] any order, including a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunctive relief, that has the purpose or effect of reducing or limiting the prisoner population, or that directs the release from or nonadmission of prisoners to a prison.”

         In its order, this Court did not release Mr. Reaves from incarceration, it transferred him. This is a distinction not without a difference. See Plata v. Brown, 2013 WL 3200587, at *8 (N.D. Cal. 2013) (noting that “Defendants conceded that an order to transfer any single inmate out of a prison to correct the violation of a constitutional right caused by something other than crowding- for example, because transfer was necessary for the inmate to obtain appropriate medical care- would not be a ‘prisoner release order'”).

         Further, assuming the Court's order qualifies as a release, at least one court has questioned whether the PLRA's three-judge requirement applies for the release or transfer of a single prisoner. See Gillette v. Prosper, No. CA 2014-00110, 2016 WL 912195, at *3 n.4 (D.V.I. Mar. 4, 2016) (assuming without deciding “that Plaintiff's request for a transfer or release of a single prisoner falls within the statutory definition of a ‘prisoner release order'”). Cf. Brown v. Plata, 563 U.S. 493, 499 (2011).

         Moreover, even if the transfer of a single prisoner qualified as a release, the Court would still refrain concluding that a three-judge panel would be required. Courts do not construe statutory phrases in isolation; they read them as a whole. United States v. Morton, 467 U.S. 822, 828 (1984). Further, “where a statute is susceptible of two constructions, by one of which grave and doubtful constitutional questions arise and by the other of which such questions are avoided, our duty is to adopt the latter.” Jones v. United States, 529 U.S. 848, 857 (2000) (quoting United States ex rel. Attorney General v. Delaware & Hudson Co., 213 U.S. 366, 408 (1909)). Similarly, “a statute should not be construed to displace courts' traditional equitable powers ‘[a]bsent the clearest command to the contrary.'” Gilmore v. People of the State of California, 220 F.3d 987, 997 n.12 (9th Cir. 2000) (quoting Califano v. Yamasaki, 442 U.S. 682, 705 (1979)); see also Weinberger v. Romero-Barcelo, 456 U.S. 305, 313 (1982) (“Unless a statue in so many words, or by a necessary and inescapable inference, restricts the court's jurisdiction in equity, the full scope of that jurisdiction is to be recognized and applied.”).

         Reading the statue as a whole entails harmonizing the definition of “prisoner release order” with the requirements for entering one. Plata, 2013 WL 3200587, at *9. One of two necessary conditions for entering a release order, as Defendants noted, is that the three-judge panel find by clear and convincing evidence, that “crowding is the primary cause of the violation of a Federal right.” 18 U.S.C. § 3626 (a)(3)(E)(i).[1] Accepting Defendants argument would mean that the only way a district court can order the release of a prisoner is for a violation of his constitutional rights where overcrowding caused the violation, but not if any other reason caused the violation. Plata, 2013 WL 3200587, at *9.

         Defendants have failed to present anything in the legislative history which evidences Congressional intent to limit the protection of inmates' constitutional rights in this way- presumably because there is no such history.[2] Id. In fact, the legislative history suggests that the sponsors of the PLRA were primarily “concerned with courts setting ‘population caps' and ordering the release of inmates as a sanction for prison administers' failure to comply with the terms of consent decrees designed to eliminate overcrowding.”[3] Gilmore, 220 F.3d at 998 n.12.

         Of course, “Congress is free to alter the standard that determines the scope of prospective relief for unconstitutional prison conditions.” Id. at 1002. That freedom, however, is not without limits. That is, Congress may alter the standard “so long as the restricts on the remedy do not prevent vindication of the right.” Id. at 1002-1003. As the court in Plata noted,

It is easy to imagine circumstances-not caused by crowding-where a transfer would be necessary to protect inmates' constitutional rights: for example, if specialized medical care were not available at a particular prison, or if one or more inmates were illegally transferred in retaliation for exercising their First Amendment rights. More starkly, imagine that a prison were so dilapidated that no one could predict when the wall would crumble down, thus putting inmates' lives at serious risk, but that Defendants refused to transfer those inmates despite being aware of that risk, in clear violation of the Eighth Amendment. In all of these cases, crowding would not be the cause (let alone the primary cause) of the ...

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