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7th Circuit Court: Class action suit isn't moot

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A class action lawsuit filed by an inmate at the Tippecanoe County Jail who has since been transferred can proceed through the litigation process to determine if class action certification is proper, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded today.

The Circuit judges reversed the District Court's dismissal of Jeffery Mark Olson's suit as moot in Jeffery Mark Olson, on behalf of himself and a class of those similarly situated v. Tracy Brown, in his official capacity as Sheriff of Tippecanoe County, No. 09-2728. Olson filed his complaint alleging violations of his rights under the federal constitution and Indiana law for opening his mail and denying access to the law library. He sued the sheriff while he was an inmate in the county jail. Shortly after Olson filed his suit and motion for class certification, the Indiana Department of Correction transferred him. The District Court ruled the suit was moot because the transfer took place before class certification.

The issue before the 7th Circuit was whether Olson's claim is so "inherently transitory" that it is uncertain that any member of the class would maintain a live controversy long enough for a judge to certify a class. In Gerstein v. Pugh, 420 U.S. 103 (1975), the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the problem of mootness for class claims brought by pre-trial detainees and found in that case that a constant class of people suffering the alleged deprivation is certain and the court could assume that counsel had other clients with a continuing live interest in the issues.

The 7th Circuit - which hadn't yet applied the Gerstein line of cases to a case involving jail inmates - agreed with the 2nd Circuit's determination that the Gerstein line of cases require a claim to meet two main elements for the "inherently transitory" exception to apply. One, it is uncertain that a claim will remain live for any individual who could be named as a plaintiff long enough for a court to certify the class; and two, there will be a constant class of persons suffering the deprivation complained of in the complaint.

It's uncertain that any potential named plaintiff in the class of inmates would have a live claim long enough for a District Court to certify a class, wrote Judge Joel Flaum. In addition, there will be a constant class of people suffering the deprivation. Olson, however, only sought injunctive relief and is no longer subject to the conditions that formed the basis of his complaint, so the issue is resolved in relation to him.

The Circuit Court declined to address the issue of class certification and instead remanded to the District Court for consideration of the motion for class certification and Sheriff Tracy Brown's motion for dismissal for failure to state a claim, which the District Court did not address before dismissing the case.

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