December 6, 2016 (Fault Lines) — The Camden division of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey is relatively small. Located just across the river from Philadelphia, the it handles a fraction of the caseload of its Pennsylvania neighbor, and its fellow divisions in Trenton and Newark.
That is, until a rumor got started that there was a big settlement for past detainees of the Camden County Correctional Facility (CCCF). The CCCF, which houses pretrial detainees and those serving short jail sentences, has a bit of a history of terrible overcrowding. Recently word got around that the jail was paying out settlement funds to those previously detained, and in order to get a check, prior detainees just needed to file a pro se lawsuit at the federal courthouse. As of December 2nd, more than 1800 people acted on this rumor and filed just this type of lawsuit. In the process, the Camden division has been completely overwhelmed with pro se filings.
Of course, there are no funds, and filing a pro se lawsuit about terrible jail conditions from 10 years ago will just result in a waste of time and a summary dismissal for being outside the statute of limitations. It’s gotten so bad that the Chief Judge has posted a notice at the door telling people not to bother.
What the hell is going on? How did this all get started?
Like many rumors, this one involves a kernel of truth. Way back in 2005, a handful of pro se plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in which they alleged unconstitutional overcrowding at CCCF. Several attorneys, including Lisa Rodriquez who was quoted by the Inquirer, then agreed to represent the plaintiffs. In an amended complaint, the plaintiffs alleged that the local jail was housing approximately 500 detainees over its capacity on any given day, and that, as a result, detainees were sleeping four to a cell, sometimes in puddles of sewage from overflowing toilets, denied clean water, showers, medical care, food, and essentially all of the basics of human habitation.
If the allegations in the complaint have any basis in reality, it is not hard to understand why so many people seem to be motivated now to get involved with the lawsuit.
But the lawsuit was not seeking money. The original complaint requested money damages. But at a hearing during the litigation, plaintiffs’ counsel “informed the Court at oral argument than Plaintiffs are seeking only injunctive relief for the claims asserted in this action” not “money damages.”
That’s why, in 2009 when the case settled, it didn’t involve any payouts for any of the detainees. Instead, it involved a consent decree, where the jail agreed to try to do better. That’s why there aren’t any checks for any of the plaintiffs.
If things were so bad in the jail, why didn’t the plaintiffs seek damages? Why are all these people in Camden out of luck?
To understand the answer, we first have to understand the rules governing class action lawsuits. Class actions are lawsuits filed on behalf of many different plaintiffs for essentially the same claim. There are two basic types of class actions – those seeking damages and those seeking only injunctive relief. Damage class actions are generally filed under Rule 23(b)(3) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, whereas injunctive class actions are filed under Rue 23(b)(2).
For all class actions, plaintiffs have to meet certain requirements in order to file a lawsuit, including showing that there are too many plaintiffs to reasonably be able file individual lawsuits (numerosity), there are common questions of fact and law for all the plaintiffs, and that the named-plaintiffs present typical claims of the class and will fairly and adequately represent the interests of everyone.
Damages actions have a few extra requirements. First, plaintiffs also have to show that common questions of law and fact predominate over all the claims and that a class action is a superior method of litigating the case, as opposed to individual lawsuits. One way of looking at this extra requirement is that damage actions have to be more similar than injunctive actions. Second, plaintiffs have to prove ascertainability of the class, i.e. they must identify with specificity who the class is and how to contact them.
As the Supreme Court has explained, the reason that these types of classes have different requirements is that class actions are binding on every member of the class, whether or not the class member is even aware of the case. When money damages are involved, due process requires that someone else can’t take over your claim for damages without first giving you notice of the suit and the option to opt out of it. As a corollary, the plaintiffs have to clearly identify who you are and convince the court that the class action is really the only way to go forward with the claim.
When the only relief being sought is to stop some sort of violation, the requirements are relaxed because you can’t be harmed by having someone else try to stop illegal conduct on your behalf. Even if the litigating parties don’t identify all the potential plaintiffs, there’s no harm in having someone else get an injunction that protects you as well. As a result, injunctive class actions are designed to be easier to litigate, at the expense of money damages.
There are also practical considerations beyond the rules to keep in mind. Suing jails on behalf of detainees is difficult business. The plaintiffs, by definition, are unpopular, and the defendants typically have neither the means nor the desire to pay damages. After all, the plaintiffs sued Camden County because the jail was so broke that it allegedly didn’t have enough running water for the detainees. Good luck getting the jail to admit wrongdoing and pay damages for that.
Injunctions, however, are easier to come by. Without agreeing to all the allegations, a jail can just agree to not let the problems happen in the future and dispose of the whole thing.
Thus, it isn’t surprising that the plaintiffs sought only an injunction. The fact that the lawsuit was successful in obtaining one is pretty good evidence that this was the correct strategy. It is doubtful that an action for damages would have resulted in any relief for the plaintiffs.
While all this might explain what happened and why, it is cold comfort to the hundreds of wannabe plaintiffs in Camden County. While they “won” the lawsuit of which they never even knew they were a part, the only thing they have to show for it is the county’s promise not to do it again.