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Disability Rights Montana, Inc. v. Batista

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

July 19, 2019

Disability Rights Montana, Inc., on behalf of all prisoners with serious mental illness confined to the Montana State Prison, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Mike Batista, in his official capacity as Director of the Montana Department of Corrections; Leroy Kirkegard, in his official capacity as warden of Montana State Prison, Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued and Submitted March 7, 2019 Seattle, Washington

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Montana Sam E. Haddon, District Judge, Presiding D.C. No. 2:15-cv-00022-SEH

          Jeffrey A. Simmons (argued), Foley & Lardner LLP, Madison, Wisconsin; Alex Rate (argued), American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, Missoula, Montana; Kyle Gray and Adrian Miller; Holland & Hart LLP, Billings, Montana; Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Thomas J. Leonard (argued), William L. Crowley, Mary Cile Glover-Rogers, Boone Karlberg P.C., Missoula, Montana; Colleen E. Ambrose, Special Assistant Attorney General, Montana Department of Corrections, Helena, Montana; for Defendants-Appellees.

          Elisabeth Centeno Lopez, Alexandre H. Rene, Helen Vera, and Jonathan R. Ference-Burke, Ropes & Gray LLP, Washington, D.C.; Diane Smith Howard, National Disability Rights Network, Washington, D.C.; for Amici Curiae National Disability Rights Network and Ten Jurisdictions' Protection and Advocacy Agencies.

          Before: Ronald M. Gould and Richard A. Paez, Circuit Judges, and Janis Graham Jack, [*] District Judge.

         SUMMARY [**]

         Prisoner Civil Rights

         The panel reversed the district court's dismissal of a prisoner civil rights complaint, remanded for further proceedings, and reassigned the case to a different district court judge.

         Plaintiff, Disability Rights Montana, alleged pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that the Director of the Montana Department of Corrections and the Warden of the Montana State Prison violated the Eighth Amendment rights of "all prisoners with serious mental illness who are confined to the Montana State Prison." The district court dismissed the complaint for failing to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).

         The panel held that the complaint, which described the horrific treatment of prisoners, was supported by factual allegations more than sufficient to "state a claim to relief that was plausible on its face" under Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

         The panel noted that the complaint alleged that prisoners with serious mental illness were denied diagnosis and treatment of their conditions, described a distressing pattern of placing mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement for "weeks and months at a time" without significant mental health care, alleged the frequent, improper use of this punishment for behavior arising from mental illness, marshalled relevant quotations from national prison health organizations about the unacceptability of subjecting prisoners to extensive solitary confinement, and alleged that the defendants did not respond appropriately to threats of suicide by mentally ill prisoners, increasing the risk of suicide. With respect to the subjective prong of the Eighth Amendment claim, the complaint also included more than sufficient allegations that defendants knew that prisoners with serious mental illness were being exposed to a substantial risk of serious harm and were indifferent to that risk.

         The panel held that reassignment to a different district court judge was required to preserve the appearance of justice. The panel noted that the district court had mistaken this case for another case brought by plaintiff against a different defendant and upon being advised of its mistake, had declined to revisit its decision, thereby letting an obviously incorrect decision stand.

          OPINION

          GOULD, CIRCUIT JUDGE

         Disability Rights Montana, Inc. ("DRM") alleges, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, that the Director of the Montana Department of Corrections and the Warden of the Montana State Prison (the "DOC defendants") have violated the Eighth Amendment rights of "all prisoners with serious mental illness who are confined to the Montana State Prison." The district court dismissed DRM's complaint for failing to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). However, DRM's complaint, which describes the horrific treatment of prisoners, is supported by factual allegations more than sufficient to "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face" under Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). We therefore reverse the district court's dismissal of the complaint, remand for further proceedings, and reassign the case to a different district court judge.

         I

         A

         The Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Act, 42 U.S.C. § 10801 et seq. ("PAIMI Act"), provides funds to maintain state level agencies for the protection of and advocacy for individuals with mental illness, and provides those designated agencies with the authority to investigate and seek legal remedies for abuse of such individuals. 42 U.S.C. § 10807(a). Plaintiff DRM is the PAIMI agency for Montana. As such, DRM is the organization tasked by Congress with "ensur[ing] that the rights of individuals with mental illness are protected" and "protect[ing] and advocat[ing] for the rights of such individuals through activities to ensure the enforcement of the Constitution and Federal and State statutes" for Montana's mentally ill individuals. 42 U.S.C. § 10801(b)(1)-(2).

         Under this authority, DRM challenges the treatment of individuals with serious mental illness in the Montana State Prison.[1] DRM claims that the DOC defendants have violated the rights of "all prisoners with serious mental illness who are confined to the Montana State Prison . . . to be free from cruel and unusual punishment" though policies and practices in place at the prison. DRM's complaint is divided into roughly three sections. The first section of the complaint contains system-wide allegations about the treatment of inmates with "serious mental illness" in the Montana prison. The second section contains detailed allegations about particular inmates to illustrate the treatment seriously mentally ill patients are given in Montana's prison. The third section alleges several different ways that the DOC defendants had been placed on notice of the risks posed by their treatment of prisoners with serious mental illness.

         The complaint alleges that the defendants act under the color of state law in administering the prison and that they remain responsible for administering the policies and practices that are the subject of the complaint. Specifically, the complaint isolates nine prison practices and/or policies that DRM contends are constitutionally suspect:

1) placing prisoners with serious mental illness in various forms of solitary confinement for 22 to 24 hours per day for ...

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