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Robinson v. Neil

United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Western Division

June 27, 2018


          Litkovitz Magistrate Judge.


          Susan J. Dlott United States District Court.

         This case came before the Court for a hearing as required by Fed. Civ. R. 23(e)(2) to determine whether a proposed class settlement was fair, reasonable, and adequate. The hearing was held in Courtroom B of the Hamilton County Justice Center because the class members were inmates in the jail, which is part of that facility. At the hearing, counsel for the parties provided the Court with information concerning the factual setting in which the case arose. Counsel informed the Court that the parties exchanged a vast amount of information. Counsel also provided the Court with relevant information regarding the class members, the settlement negotiations, the settlement terms, the notice provided to class members, the benefit to class members, why the settlement was fair, reasonable, and adequate, and the compensation and attorneys' fees. In addition, seven objectors where present at the hearing. One, Tionna Davenport, on advice of counsel in her criminal case, chose not to testify and was excused from the hearing in its early stages.

         Findings by the Court

         Based upon the presentations of counsel and hearing testimony of the inmates filing objections, the Court makes the following findings of fact:

         I. Summary of Case

         The factual predicate for this case actually began with the 2008 financial crisis that led to the Hamilton County Sheriff closing the Queens Gate Correctional Facility that housed 800 inmates. In order to control the population, a series of release policies were adopted by then Sheriff Simon Leis, some of which were not authorized by Ohio law.

         In June 2017, the No. of inmates in the Hamilton County Justice Center spiked to 1, 611 inmates. The current sheriff, Jim Neil, was forced to house inmates on temporary beds, more commonly called “boats, ” in the two gymnasiums in the Hamilton County Justice Center. This caused security and safety concerns, difficulty in locating inmates for distribution of medication and provision of medical care, difficulty with the provision of toilet facilities, and inadequate telephone access to inmates. About the same time, following the closure of the Queens Gate Correctional Facility, the Ohio courts had found some of the adopted release policies violated Ohio law.

         Major Ketteman, the director of jail operations in the Hamilton County Justice Center, authored a letter on June 14, 2017, declaring an emergency under Ohio law and articulated the overcrowding issues outlined above. Major Ketteman documented a cascade of consequences caused by overcrowding that Plaintiffs contend violate class members rights as protected by the Eighth Amendment to the constitution. (See Doc. 8- 1, Page ID# 49-52, Ketteman Memorandum, June 14, 2017.) This declaration of emergency allowed Sheriff Neil to directly draw funds from the Hamilton County Auditor without an appropriation by the Hamilton County Board of County Commissioners, to pay for housing inmates in jail facilities located in other Ohio counties.

         In September 2017, inmate Samuel Robinson filed a grievance, complaining that he had a medical condition preventing him from using a boat. This led to a class action complaint being filed on September 28, 2017, asserting, inter alia, that overcrowding at HCJC was causing class members to suffer conditions of confinement that violated their right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment as protected by the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. (Doc. 1, Page ID# 1) Two amended complaints adding named inmates and alleging the same unconstitutional conditions were filed thereafter. (Doc. 10, Page ID# 74, First Amended Complaint; Doc. 12-1, Page ID# 99, Second Amended Complaint.) Sheriff Neil filed an Answer on January 10, 2018 and opposed class certification. The Parties disputed whether unconstitutional conditions of confinement, similar to those outlined in the Ketteman Memorandum, continued after suit was filed, prompting an agreement to mediate.

         The case was referred to Magistrate Judge Litkovitz for the sole purpose of conducting a settlement conference on December 5, 2017. After numerous conferences with Magistrate Judge Litkovitz and meetings between counsel for Inmate Robinson and Sheriff Neil, a proposed settlement was agreed upon by counsel for the parties. On May 11, 2018, the Court certified the Class, preliminarily approved the Class settlement, ordered notice to be sent to Class members, and set a hearing on fairness, reasonableness, and adequacy of the proposed settlement.

         During the time period between the Ketteman Memorandum of June 14, 2017 and the Parties agreeing upon the Proposed Settlement Agreement numerous changes took place in the physical make up and the operational procedures used in the Hamilton County Justice Center. These included:

a) 25 inmates were transferred to the jail in Butler County, Ohio;
b) 119 additional jail beds were purchased and installed in order to make all cells in the Hamilton County Justice Center, double cells;
c) The boats, when needed, were distributed into pods the 16 and 24 cell pods in the Hamilton County Justice Center instead of being collected in the gymnasiums;
d) Further, the boats were numbered to make locating a particular inmate for medication and medical care much easier;
e) The telephone system was modified to add telephones, to limit telephone calls to 20 minutes, and to lock out the most recent user so other inmates would have an opportunity to use the telephones;
f) The classification system (the one used by Sheriff Neil and his predecessor is approved by the National Institute of Corrections) was used for both cell and boat assignments;
g) The sheriff and the labor union representing corrections officers agreed to increase staffing by one additional corrections ...

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