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Austin v. Smith

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

July 27, 2018

DAVID D. AUSTIN II, on behalf of himself and all others similarly situated, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff David D. Austin II, a former prisoner at the Oshkosh Correctional Institution (OCI), alleges that the acrylic sheets covering the windows of the cells in certain blocks of OCI cause the cells to be extremely hot and potentially unsafe. I have allowed the case to proceed as a class action on claims under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Dkt. 102; Dkt. 114; Dkt. 123. Defendants have also moved to decertify the class. Dkt. 103. Because no reasonable juror could conclude that the temperature of the cells was anything more than uncomfortably hot, and because it is not clearly established that transferring certain inmates to uncomfortably hot cells violates the Equal Protection Clause, I will grant summary judgment in defendants' favor.


         I begin with an observation: Many of Austin's proposed facts and responses to defendants' proposed facts do not comply with the court's procedures on motions for summary judgment. See Dkt. 51, at 7-13. For example, Austin's general citation to “Group Exhibit C” is contrary to the court's requirement that each factual proposition be followed by a citation to the specific evidence supporting it-and such a general citation is particularly unhelpful when no entry on the court's docket bears the label “Group Exhibit C” and the document that I take Austin to refer to comprises 221 pages of affidavits. See Dkt. 126. The same is true of Austin's general citation to “Medical Records, ” which I cannot locate on the docket. Even more troublesome are Austin's responses to defendants' proposed facts, many of which purport to dispute the proposed fact but do not cite to evidence supporting Austin's version of the fact. I will accept a proposed fact as undisputed where neither side disputes it, and where the proponent cites to admissible evidence in support of the fact, and the other side offers no evidence in response.

         The following facts are undisputed except where noted.

         OCI is a medium-security correctional institution for adult male inmates. It comprises 12 housing units, each of which houses about 150 to 200 inmates. The S-Unit is a restrictive housing unit; the remaining 11 units house general population inmates and feature various programs, groups, and accommodations. The units also vary in their design and construction.

         This case concerns two units in particular: R-Unit and W-Unit. R-Unit and W-Unit were designed to be available for use as restrictive housing units if necessary. The cells in both units have steel doors and toilets, allowing the cells to be locked at night. And until recently, the cell windows in both units were covered with acrylic sheets and therefore could not be opened, whereas windows in other units may be opened between May and October. These acrylic coverings are the focus of this suit.

         Austin was an inmate at OCI from June 2012 to June 2016. During that time, he was housed in several units. He was housed in the R-Unit for two days in 2012 and again from November 21, 2014, to June 2, 2016. On August 19, 2015, he filed a complaint concerning the conditions in the R-Unit cells. I allowed him to proceed on an Eighth Amendment conditions-of-confinement claim and a Fourteenth Amendment equal protection claim based on his allegations that the acrylic plastic coverings caused his cell to be extremely hot and therefore unsafe. Dkt. 14. Later, after Austin was released from prison and obtained counsel, I allowed him to proceed on Fourteenth Amendment due process claims, too, and I allowed the case to proceed as a class action. Dkt. 42 and Dkt. 49. The class members are all inmates who were housed in R-Unit between August 19, 2009, and April 30, 2016, or who were housed in W-Unit between August 19, 2009, and February 28, 2016. During this time, defendant Judy Smith was the warden of OCI, and defendant Rexford Smith was the Corrections Unit Supervisor of the R-Unit. Defendant Ed Wall was the secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections until February 27, 2016. Defendant Cathy A. Jess is the current secretary of the Department of Corrections.

         This case raises two key questions. First, just how hot did the acrylic coverings make the cells in R-Unit and W-Unit? According to Austin, very hot. In support of his position, he points to numerous class members' declarations.[1] Inmates don't have access to thermometers, but the class members estimate that during the summer, the cells in R-Unit felt between 5 and 30 degrees hotter than cells in other units or the outside temperature, Dkt. 126, at 9, 110, and the cells in W-Unit felt between 10 and 20 degrees hotter than cells in other units or the outside temperature.[2] Id. at 35, 110. Over the years, many inmates submitted grievances complaining about the acrylic window coverings; the grievances were dismissed.

         But according to OCI staff members, during the summer, the temperature of the cells in R-Unit and W-Unit felt the same as the outside temperature and the temperature in other units. Both units feature ventilation systems designed to regulate the temperature without air conditioning. Austin does not dispute that OCI staff members working on W-Unit had access to a thermometer to monitor the temperature and that the temperature was between 68 and 72 degrees “except in limited instances of extreme heat and cold.”[3] Dkt. 111, ¶ 24. Inmates and staff submitted four complaints to maintenance about excessive heat in R-Unit and W-Unit between 2010 and 2016. Maintenance addressed each one. (Most of the complaints during that time period were about cold temperatures.) The state defendants also adduce the report of Donald Horkey, a mechanical engineer, which states that the heating and ventilation system in R-Unit is designed to keep the inside temperature no more than 4.5 degrees hotter than the outside air temperature during the summer, and that the heating and ventilation system in W-Unit is designed to keep the inside temperature no more than 9.8 degrees hotter than the outside air temperature during the summer. See Dkt. 141, at 7, 12. Horkey opines that the acrylic coverings “had no impact on the indoor environmental quality.” Id. at 2.

         I turn now to the second question: what were the effects of the heat? An OCI staff member who has worked in R-Unit and W-Unit since before the acrylic coverings were added to the windows does not remember any medical emergencies related to heat. And Austin's medical records reflect no complaints of heat-related conditions while he was housed in R-Unit. But numerous class members state that they suffered from asthma, nasal congestion, difficulty breathing, difficulty sleeping, and headaches, among other ailments, while they were housed in R-Unit or W-Unit. (They don't explain whether they had the same symptoms when they were housed elsewhere.) They believe that these symptoms were the “result of the restrictive nature of” their cells. E.g., Dkt. 126, at 4. Austin points to the report of Humam Farah, a doctor specializing in pulmonary disease and sleep medicine, which states that people who are “exposed to extremes of heat” are likely to suffer symptoms such as the ones described by the class members. Dkt. 134, at 2-4. Farah noted in his report that heat stroke can lead to serious injury. He also reviewed the class members' medical records and found a “higher than expected prevalence” of asthma, which “could be related to ventilation and allergens, ” and found that inmates “with preexisting asthma have worsened after” coming to R-Unit or W-Unit. Dkt. 171, at 4. Austin also points to the declaration of John Mundt, a licensed clinical psychologist, who explains that psychotropic medications can interfere with the body's ability to regulate heat. Therefore, it is especially important to ensure that people taking these medications stay well hydrated and “have access to cooler areas.” Dkt. 172, ¶ 7.

         The parties agree that inmates at OCI are allowed to purchase personal fans for their cells and are instructed on how to use fans effectively to combat high temperatures. They also have access to ice, which is sometimes regulated during periods of high demand. When the heat index is greater than 90 degrees, OCI staff provide extra cold fluids, ice, and wet towels to inmates and take other measures to reduce the risk of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. They are also instructed on the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke and appropriate responses.


         Summary judgment is appropriate if a moving party “shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). When, as here, the parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment, the court looks “to the burden of proof that each party would bear on an issue at trial, ” and then requires that party to establish a genuine issue of material fact. Santaella v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 123 F.3d 456, 461 (7th Cir. 1997). If any party “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, ” summary judgment against that party is appropriate. Mid. Am. Title Co. v. Kirk, 59 F.3d 719, 721 (7th Cir. 1995) (quoting Tatlovich v. City of Superior, 904 F.2d 1135, 1139 (7th Cir. 1990)). The court reviews the cross-motions “construing all facts, and drawing all reasonable inferences from ...

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