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C-POD Inmates of Middlesex County Adult Correction Center v. Middlesex County

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

July 31, 2018

C-POD INMATES OF MIDDLESEX COUNTY ADULT CORRECTION CENTER, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
MIDDLESEX COUNTY, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          HONORABLE TONIANNE J. BONGIOVANNI UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter has been opened by the Court sua sponte based on Plaintiff Tyson Ratliff's (“Ratliff”) failure to comply with this Court's Orders. For the reasons that follow, it is respectfully recommended that Ratliff's claims be DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.

         Background and Procedural History

         On November 5, 2015, Plaintiffs, who were inmates housed at the Middlesex County Adult Correction Center in “C-Pod, ” a unit for solitary confinement, initiated this litigation by filing their Complaint against Middlesex County, challenging the social and environmental deprivations experienced by inmates in C-Pod, alleging that said deprivations violated their constitutional rights. (See generally, Pl. Cmplt.; Docket Entry No. 1). Specifically, Plaintiffs brought claims for (1) unconstitutional punishment of pretrial detainees under the Fourteenth Amendment (Count I); (2) cruel and unusual punishment under the Eight Amendment (Count II); and (3) unconstitutional restrictions on the right of access to the courts under the Fourteenth Amendment. (Id.). A week after Plaintiffs filed their Complaint, they sought to certify a class. (Pl. Motion to Certify Class; Docket Entry No. 3). This motion was ultimately withdrawn at Plaintiffs' request in order to give the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”), which had decided to enter an appearance on behalf of Plaintiffs, an opportunity to become acclimated with the case. (See Letter Order of 1/4/2016; Docket Entry No. 14).

         Middlesex County responded to Plaintiffs' Complaint on December 17, 2015, denying that any constitutional violations had occurred. (See generally, Def. Answer; Docket Entry No. 11). After Defendant answered, the Court scheduled the Initial Conference in this matter. (Initial Scheduling Order of 1/5/2016; Docket Entry No. 15). During the Initial Conference, the Court set a schedule for certain discovery necessary to facilitate the parties' settlement discussions. (See Scheduling Order of 3/1/2016; Docket Entry No. 21). Said discovery ensued and the parties' settlement discussions progressed. (See Text Orders of 8/22/2016 & 10/6/2016; Docket Entry Nos. 25 & 26).

         In light of the development of the parties' discussions, the Court scheduled an in-person status conference for January 30, 2017 for the purpose of discussing settlement. (Text Order of 12/6/2016; Docket Entry No. 27).[1] During the conference, it became apparent that the parties' negotiations had progressed significantly, with substantial headway having been made. As a result, the Court arranged to follow up with the parties via telephone on May 24, 2017.

         On May 24, 2017, the Court stayed discovery in order to further facilitate the parties' settlement discussions. The Court also set a schedule for the parties' exchanges of settlement proposals. (See Letter Order of 5/25/2017; Docket Entry No. 29). The parties continued to exchange settlement proposals and it appeared that a settlement had been reached with 8 of 9 of the named Plaintiffs having signed the settlement agreement by June 19, 2018. The only Plaintiff who had not signed the settlement agreement was Ratliff, though during a conference held on June 19, 2018, counsel indicated that Ratliff was not unhappy with the agreement, but nevertheless did not want to sign same. Given Ratliff's refusal to sign the settlement agreement, the Court scheduled a telephonic settlement conference exclusively for Ratliff and his attorney for July 10, 2018. (Text Minute Entry of 6/19/2018). As the Court explained:

So I scheduled a telephone conference for July 10th to, again, discuss the settlement with Mr. Duddy and Mr. Ratliff separate from the defendants. It was my intention to explore with him what Mr. Ratliff's position was, if he had any concerns, if he wasn't interested in the settlement, all of the concerns that a Court would address when we're conducting an in-person settlement conference. . . . I thought I could at least tease-out and explore, again, with Mr. Ratliff informally what his concerns were, and perhaps address with Mr. Duddy any of the issues that he had, and maybe eliminate them, and move this along for a settlement.

(Tr. of Proceedings of 7/26/2017 at 4:7-22; Docket Entry No.41).

         However, despite being aware of the scheduled telephonic settlement conference, Ratliff did not participate in same. As a result, on July 12, 2018, the Court entered a Letter Order to Show Cause in which Ratliff was ordered to appear in person before the undersigned on July 26, 2018 at 10:30 a.m. to show cause for his failure to participate in the scheduled July 10, 2018 conference.

         (Letter Order to Show Cause of 7/12/2018 at 1; Docket Entry No. 39). Ratliff was also directed to submit a written explanation regarding his failure to participate in the July 10, 2018 conference by July 24, 2018. (Id. .at 2). Further, Ratliff was specifically warned that if he failed to comply with the Court's Order to Show Cause, his claims could be dismissed from this matter:

Should Plaintiff Ratliff fail to submit the written explanation or fail to appear in person on July 26, 2018 as ordered, both monetary and nonmonetary sanctions may be imposed, including the dismissal of his claims.

(Id.) Despite the foregoing, Ratliff neither submitted a written explanation nor appeared in person at the show cause hearing.

         During the show cause hearing, the Court confirmed through his counsel that Ratliff was aware of the Court's Order to Show Cause, the requirement that he submit a written explanation, the requirement that he appear in person, and the potential dispositive consequences failing to comply with the Court's Order could have for him:

THE COURT: I will now turn to, Mr. Duddy, and as I discussed off-the-record with you, I am not interested in encroaching upon your attorney-client communications. What you have a responsibility to do, however, is to report to the Court, did you, in fact, provide this letter order to Mr. Ratliff, as I had instructed? What's your understanding of whether or not he received this letter; was aware of today's appearance order to show cause hearing; whether he was aware of the July 24th submission date; and more importantly, if you have any indication of whether or not he intended to participate; and if he has any interest in proceeding with this litigation?
That last aspect, I will note that there have been times where parties have somewhat compelled the Court to move forward while they are not interested in pursuing the litigation, they can't be bothered, mind you, of even withdrawing the complaint or officially indicating that they no longer want to participate, and then we have to go through these steps.
So, if I could -- that was very longwinded, but, Mr. Duddy, if you outline the steps that you have taken to communicate this letter with Mr. Ratliff, its import, and if you have any indication of whether or not he intended to ...

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