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Geissler v. Sterling

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Florence Division

August 5, 2019

RUSSELL GEISSLER, BERNARD BAGLEY, AND WILLIE JAMES JACKSON, individually and on behalf of others similarly situated, Plaintiffs,
v.
BRYAN P. STIRLING, Director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections SCDC, in his official capacity; and JOHN B. MCREE, M.D., Division Director of Health and Professional Services for SCDC, in his individual capacity, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Margaret B. Seymour Senior United States District Judge.

         Plaintiffs Russell Geissler, Bernard Bagley, and Willie James Jackson individually and as class representatives for all those similarly situated bring this action pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 23 against Defendants Bryan P. Stirling and John B. McRee, M.D., alleging that the South Carolina Department of Corrections (“SCDC”) has failed to screen and adequately treat inmates for chronic Hepatitis C (“HCV”).[1] Plaintiffs, who are in SCDC custody, assert violations of the Eighth Amendment pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12131 et seq., and the Rehabilitation Act, as amended, 29 U.S.C. §§ 791 et seq.. Plaintiffs seek injunctive and declaratory relief, and Plaintiff Geissler seeks compensatory and punitive damages. ECF No. 108 at 3. The court exercises federal subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

         BACKGROUND

         The claims Plaintiffs assert and the relief they seek concern SCDC's alleged failure to (1) properly test prisoners in its custody for HCV and (2) properly treat prisoners in its custody who are afflicted with HCV. This Order resolves the claims pertaining to SCDC's alleged failure to properly test prisoners for HCV (“Testing Claims”), and has no bearing on the claims related to SCDC's policies and practices for treating inmates for HCV, or on Plaintiff Geissler's individual claims.

         Plaintiffs assert that the Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”) recommend that HCV testing be administered in a two-step process. ECF No. 108 at ¶ 42; ECF No. 149 at 2. The first step determines whether the HCV antibody is present. If the HCV antibody is present, the second step facilitates nucleic acid testing to determine if the HCV infection is current. Id. The Parties engaged in extensive written discovery and some oral discovery and, as a result of those efforts, SCDC acknowledged that it had not administered the recommended two-step process for all inmates whom SCDC had tested for HCV antibodies. ECF No. 149 at 3.

         On December 4, 2018, the Parties filed a joint motion for preliminary approval of a partial consent decree to resolve the Testing Claims; the Parties subsequently filed a Revised Partial Consent Decree. On December 5, 2018, the court held a status conference on the joint motion, ECF No. 138; and, on December 6, 2018, the court granted preliminary certification to a class consisting of the following persons: “All current and future inmates in SCDC custody, with the exception of inmates who have already been diagnosed with chronic HCV, ” (“Testing Class”).[2] ECF No. 140. The court also preliminarily certified Plaintiffs Geissler and Bagley as Class Representatives, and preliminarily approved the Revised Partial Consent Decree as well as the notice and procedure for distributing the notice to class members. ECF No. 142. The court set a fairness hearing for February 12, 2019. ECF No. 143.

         Prior to the fairness hearing, the Parties filed a Joint Motion for Final Approval of the Revised Partial Consent Decree (“Joint Motion for Approval”). ECF No. 149. Counsel represented in the Joint Motion for Approval that pursuant to the court's order of preliminary approval, counsel posted the Revised Partial Consent Decree on www.SCHepC.com on December 19, 2018, and provided all Circuit Public Defenders with notice of the Revised Partial Consent Decree on January 11, 2019. ECF No. 149-2. SCDC posted notice of the Revised Partial Consent Decree in every housing unit of every SCDC institution and in SCDC's intake facilities, and additionally made information regarding the Revised Partial Consent Decree available on the SCDC website and in the prison libraries. ECF No. 149-3. Counsel informed the court that as of February 5, 2018, they had received more than thirty responses to the notices. Counsel represented that “most of the[] responses have sought additional information or raised concerns regarding treatment, ” and “[i]nasmuch as the Revised Partial Consent Decree addresses only the Testing Claims, these responses are not being interpreted by counsel for either side as objections to the proposed settlement of the Testing Claims.” ECF No. 149 at 6. Counsel stated they nonetheless “noted the concerns stated in the numerous letters submitted and are responding to all correspondence in an effort to further inform the concerned individuals that settlement discussions regarding the Treatment Issue have commenced and are ongoing.” Id.

         The Joint Motion for Approval states that SCDC agrees to provide Class Members with testing for chronic HCV in accordance with CDC guidelines within eighteen months of the court's approval. ECF No. 149 at 1-2. The Joint Motion for Approval represents that the Parties “have fully exhausted discovery on the Testing Claims, ” id. at 7; and states that as of February 5, 2019, SCDC had taken the following actions relevant to the Testing Class: (1) provided notice of the terms of the Revised Partial Consent Decree to current SCDC inmates by posting the court-approved notice in each prison; (2) implemented the CDC's recommended two-step process for diagnosing chronic HCV; (3) tested Plaintiffs Geissler and Bagley for chronic HCV according to the CDC guidelines; (4) offered opt-out testing to 533 inmates and tested 442 inmates, 52 of whom (11.7 percent) tested positive for chronic HCV; (5) provided Plaintiffs' counsel with information about the opt-out process as well as the test results and opt-out forms; and (6) provided Governor McMaster and the state legislature with accurate estimates regarding the scope of chronic HCV in South Carolina's prison system, id. at 4 (citing Jan. 24, 2019 Letters from Defendant Stirling to the Honorable Harvey S. Peeler, Jr., President of the South Carolina Senate and the Honorable James H. Lucas, Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives, ECF No. 149-1). The Joint Motion for Approval further states that “[b]ased on the sample of 442 inmates that have already been tested, SCDC estimates that approximately 2, 182 inmates are likely to have HCV.” Id. at 10. Counsel assert that “[t]he Revised Partial Consent Decree will allow SCDC to ascertain the precise number of inmates with chronic HCV and hopefully help prevent the spread of the disease in the prison population and the general public.” Id. Also prior to the fairness hearing, Plaintiffs filed an unopposed motion to appoint class counsel, ECF No. 152, and filed a supplemental memorandum to the Joint Motion for Approval to address the requirements of 18 U.S.C. § 3626. ECF No. 153.

         On February 12, 2019, the court held a fairness hearing pursuant to Rule 23(e)(2) to determine whether the within action satisfies the applicable prerequisites for class action treatment and whether the proposed Revised Partial Consent Decree is fundamentally fair, reasonable, and adequate, and should be approved by the court. The court certified Plaintiffs' counsel as Class Counsel and heard argument from the Parties. Mr. Bagley, a Class Representative, appeared via videoconference and informed the court that he understood the terms of the settlement and had no objection. Mr. Bagley voiced concern, however, regarding the timeline that would govern SCDC's testing of inmates for HCV; specifically, he highlighted the likelihood that SCDC would release class members from its custody before it could test those members for HCV.[3] The court expressed a similar concern, and queried counsel as to whether the Parties should redefine the Testing Class. The court also inquired as to whether any other class members were in attendance who wished to object to or be excluded from the settlement; no other class members were present or otherwise represented.

         On July 22, 2019, the Parties filed a Joint Motion to Substitute Filing, asking to substitute a Partial Settlement Agreement in place of the proposed Revised Partial Consent Decree. ECF No. 166. The Parties represent that the Partial Settlement Agreement and proposed Revised Partial Consent Decree are “substantively identical” and that “no class member will be prejudiced by this substitution of documents, ” and assert that “because there is no substantive change between the two documents . . . there is no need to repeat the notice period.” Id. at 2.[4] The court agrees. Accordingly, the court will grant the Joint Motion to Substitute Filing and apply the Rule 23(e) fairness analysis to the Partial Settlement Agreement.

         DISCUSSION

         Rule 23(b)(2) provides that a class action may be maintained if Rule 23(a) is satisfied and if “the party opposing the class has acted or refused to act on grounds that apply generally to the class, so that final injunctive relief or corresponding declaratory relief is appropriate respecting the class as a whole.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(b)(2). Rule 23(a) states that one or more members of a class may sue as representative parties on behalf of all members only if the following criteria are satisfied: (1) the class is so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable; (2) there are questions of law or fact common to the class; (3) the claims or defenses of the representative parties are typical of the claims or defenses of the class; and (4) the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class. Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(a).

         With respect to the type of class certification Plaintiffs seek, Rule 23(b)(2) certification is reserved for cases where broad, class-wide injunctive or declaratory relief is necessary to redress a group-wide injury. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S.Ct. 2541, 2557 (2011) (“Rule 23(b)(2) applies only when a single injunction or declaratory judgment would provide relief to each member of the class”); Thorn v. Jefferson-Pilot Life Ins. Co., 445 F.3d 311, 329-30 (4th Cir. 2006). A class action is properly certified under Rule 23(b)(2) where the claims seek to define the relationship between the defendant and a group uniformly situated in relation to the defendant, such as where litigants seek institutional reform in the form of injunctive relief. See Dukes, 131 S.Ct. at 2557; Thorn, 445 F.3d at 329-30.

         The Parties seek approval of the Partial Settlement Agreement as settlement of the Testing Claims. The claims asserted by a certified class may be settled only with the court's approval. Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(e). Where the proposal would bind class members, the court may approve it only after a hearing and only on finding that the proposed settlement is fair, reasonable, and adequate. Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(e)(2). To determine whether the proposal is fair, the court must consider (i) the posture of the case at the time of settlement, (ii) the extent of discovery that has been conducted, (iii) the circumstances surrounding the negotiations, and (iv) the experience of counsel. See In re Jiffy Lube Securities Litig., 927 F.2d 155, 158-59 (4th Cir. 1991). “A proposed class action settlement is considered presumptively fair where there is no evidence of collusion and the parties, through capable counsel, have engaged in arm's length negotiations.” Harris v. McCrackin, No. 2:03-3845-23, 2006 WL 1897038, at *5 (D.S.C. July 10, 2006) (citing South Carolina Nat'l Bank v. Stone, 139 F.R.D. 335, 339 (D.S.C. 1991)). In evaluating the adequacy of a class settlement, the court should consider the following: (i) the relative strength of the plaintiffs' case on the merits; (ii) the existence of any difficulties of proof or strong defenses the plaintiffs are likely to encounter if the case goes to trial; (iii) the anticipated duration and ...


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