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Mitchell v. Cuomo

November 26, 1984

THEODORE MITCHELL, FRANK DOLAN, WILLIAM FISCHER AND ARTHUR MEADOWS, ON THEIR BEHALF AND ON THE BEHALF OF ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES,
v.
MARIO CUOMO, GOVERNOR OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, THOMAS A. COUGHLIN, III, COMMISSIONER OF THE NEW YORK STATE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONAL SERVICES, RAYMOND R. BARA, SUPERINTENDENT OF THE LONG ISLAND CORRECTIONAL FACILITY, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS



Appeal from an order of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Frank X. Altimari, Judge, that granted plaintiffs' application for a preliminary injunction prohibiting defendants from closing the Long Island Correctional Facility. Affirmed. Friendly, Circuit Judge, filed a dissenting opinion.

Author: Pratt

Before: LUMBARD, FRIENDLY, and PRATT, Circuit Judges.

PRATT, Circuit Judge:

In this action by inmates of the Long Island Correctional Facility (LICF), defendants appeal from an order of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Frank X. Altimari, Judge, that granted the inmates' application for a preliminary injunction prohibiting defendants from closing LICF pending a trial on the merits. Finding no abuse of discretion, we affirm.

BACKGROUND

In June of 1982, the New York State correctional system was filled to 114 percent of its permanent housing capacity for prisoners. As part of an ongoing response to the need for additional prison space, the state Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) converted part of the Pilgrim State Psychiatric Center at West Brentwood, Long Island, into the medium-security LICF in July of 1982.

Defending the state's decision to open LICF, Thomas A. Coughlin, III, New York's Commissioner of Corrections, described in detail to the state Supreme Court the state's increasingly desperate need for prison beds. He stated that any delay in opening LICF "would be the equivalent of the ingestion of convulsing thalidomide. In my opinion, the system could not endure it." In September 1983 he stated under oath that "the statewide need for additional housing capacity is grave and immediate; and that any delay in, or deferral of, measures to relieve the State's critically over-extended facilities is an unacceptably dangerous risk." Commissioner Coughlin attributed this "dangerous risk" to overcrowding and testified that among the possible consequences of not providing additional housing space for New York's prisoners were "riots," "death," and "injury to both inmates and [employees] of this department."

However, based on its determination that it had opened LICF without providing adequate opportunity for community participation in the planning process, DOCS decided to close the facility on October 1, 1984. Even though the rest of the state correctional system was filled to 116 percent of permanent capacity as of September 1984 -- making the system more overcrowded than when LICF opened -- the DOCS plan would have reduced the state's inmate housing capacity by 1000 beds and required the transfer of approximately 475 LICF inmates into other medium and maximum security prisons in the state.

The inmates brought this action alleging that the plan to close LICF and transfer them to other overcrowded facilities would violate their eighth and fourteenth amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment. Following a two-day hearing, the district judge preliminarily enjoined defendants from closing the facility and scheduled plaintiffs' underlying claims for trial in January 1985.

The state has appealed, contending that the district judge abused his discretion because the record does not support his findings of irreparable harm, of a sufficiently serious risk to plaintiffs' eighth amendment interests, or of a balance of equities in plaintiffs' favor. The inmates contend that the district judge did not abuse his discretion by maintaining the status quo until trial in January. They argue that irreparable harm is present since closing the prison would be an irreversible act and there is a possible threat to their eighth amendment right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. They contend, moreover, that the balance of hardships tips decidedly in their favor because their loss would be an unconstitutional deprivation of eighth amendment rights if the injunction did not issue, while the state's gain would be merely financial and administrative.

Discussion

The standard for granting a preliminary injunction is clear. "A party . . . must always show that it is likely to suffer possible irreparable harm if the requested relief is not granted. In addition, it must demonstrate either (1) a likelihood of success on the merits of its case or (2) sufficiently serious questions going to the merits to make them a fair ground for litigation and a balance of hardships tipping decidedly in its favor." Coca Cola Co. v. Tropicana Products, Inc., 690 F.2d 312, 314-15 (2d Cir. 1982). Of course, we must accept the district judge's findings of fact unless they are clearly erroneous. Unicon Management Corp. v. Koppers Company, 366 F.2d 199, 203 (2d Cir. 1966). The ultimate, narrow question before us as a reviewing court is whether the district court abused its discretion in issuing the preliminary injunction. Coca Cola Co., 690 F.2d at 315.

1) Irreparable Harm.

The district judge found irreparable harm arising from the facts that without injunctive relief, plaintiffs would be transferred into an already overcrowded system and the LICF would be permanently closed. Obviously, the district judge did not determine at this preliminary stage that closing LICF and transferring the prisoners would, in and of itself, constitute irreparable harm. Rather, the irreparable harm he found arose from the possible deprivation of eighth amendment rights that plaintiffs contend will follow from implementation of the plan. "When an alleged deprivation of a constitutional right is involved, most courts hold that no further showing of irreparable injury is necessary." 11 C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure, Section 2948, at 440 (1973). See Ambrose v. Malcolm, 414 F. Supp. 485, 493 (S.D.N.Y. 1976) (eighth amendment); Lollis v. New York State Department of Social Services, 322 F. Supp. 473, 483 (S.D.N.Y. 1970) (eighth amendment). Given the ...


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