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Sullivan v. Benningfield

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Cookeville Division

June 18, 2018

CHRISTOPHER SULLIVAN, et al., Plaintiffs,



         Pending before the Court are Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (Doc. No. 15), Plaintiffs' Motion to Certify Questions of State Law (Doc. No. 20), Plaintiffs' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 21), Plaintiffs' Motion to Ascertain Status (Doc. No. 35), and Plaintiffs' Motion in Limine (Doc. No. 45).


         Plaintiffs are male citizens who, at the time of the Amended Complaint, were incarcerated in the White County, Tennessee jail. Defendant Benningfield is the White County General Sessions Judge. Defendant Shoupe is the White County Sheriff. Plaintiffs allege that, on May 15, 2017, Defendant Benningfield issued a “Standing Order” providing, among other things, that any White County male inmate serving a sentence for the General Sessions Court who had a free vasectomy would be given a thirty-day credit on his sentence (Doc. No. 13-1).[1] Plaintiffs claim that this Standing Order violated both the United States and the Tennessee Constitutions, and they seek declaratory and injunctive relief.

         Plaintiffs assert that, following widespread criticism, on July 26, 2017, Defendant Benningfield issued a Supplemental Order titled “Order Rescinding Previous Standing Order” that purported to rescind the May 15, 2017 Standing Order (Doc. No. 13-2). In addition to ordering that the previous order was rescinded, the Supplemental Order stated: “Those inmates who have demonstrated to the court their desire to improve their situations and take serious and considered steps toward their rehabilitation by having the procedures or agreeing to have same will not be denied the credit. You will be awarded the 30 days jail credit promised whether you ultimately receive the procedures or not.” (Doc. No. 13-2). Plaintiffs read this provision as keeping the May 15, 2017 Standing Order in effect.

         On November 9, 2017, Defendant Benningfield entered another Order, this one titled “Order Clarifying Order Rescinding Previous Standing Order” (Doc. No. 42-1).[2] This Order stated, among other things, that the Order Rescinding the Previous Standing Order: (1) held that the court would no longer offer the 30-day credit toward completion of a jail sentence if the inmate received the free Nexplanon implant or the vasectomy; (2) informed those eligible inmates who had signed up to receive these procedures that they would still receive the 30-day credit, regardless of whether they actually got the procedures or not; (3) was not intended to extend the 30-day jail credit to anyone who promised to undergo the procedures after entry of the Order Rescinding Previous Standing Order; and (4) was intended only to insure that those inmates who had already complied with the first Standing Order would receive the promised benefit (Doc. No. 42-1).

         On May 1, 2018, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed into law Senate Bill 2133, which expressly forbids conditioning the length of any criminal sentence on the defendant's submitting to any form of temporary or permanent birth control, sterilization or family planning services. (Doc. No. 50-2). Therefore, the alleged misconduct is now illegal by statute. This action is one of four in this Court challenging the constitutionality of Defendant Benningfield's Orders and the actions of White County officials in response thereto.[3]

         Motions to Dismiss

         Defendants have moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint for lack of standing and for failure to state a claim for which relief may be granted. For purposes of a motion to dismiss, the Court must take all of the factual allegations in the complaint as true. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009). To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. Id. A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. Id. Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice. Id. When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief. Id. at 1950. A legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation need not be accepted as true on a motion to dismiss, nor are recitations of the elements of a cause of action sufficient. Fritz v. Charter Township of Comstock, 592 F.3d 718, 722 (6th Cir. 2010).


         Article III of the United States Constitution limits the jurisdiction of federal courts to hear only actual cases and controversies. United States Const. art. 3, § 2; Lyshe v. Levy, 854 F.3d 855, 857 (6th Cir. 2017). The doctrine of standing aids in defining these limits. The plaintiff has the burden of establishing standing. Id. To establish Article III standing, a plaintiff must show: (1) an injury in fact; (2) a sufficient causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of; and (3) a likelihood that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision. List v. Driehaus, 134 S.Ct. 2334, 2341 (2014). An injury sufficient to satisfy Article III must be concrete and particularized and actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical. Id. An allegation of future injury may suffice if the threatened injury is certainly impending or there is a substantial risk that the harm will occur. Id. A plaintiff must establish that he has a personal stake in the outcome of the controversy. Lyshe, 854 F.3d at 857. Whether a party has standing is an issue of the court's subject matter jurisdiction. Id.

         Defendants argue that Plaintiffs were not injured as a result of Judge Benningfield's Orders and there is no future injury imminent. None of the Plaintiffs in this case received the offered vasectomies. Plaintiffs argue that the Standing Order subjected them to an additional thirty days in jail if they were unwilling to get a vasectomy. That characterization is misleading. Plaintiffs' sentences were not increased if they did not get the procedures. Under the Standing Order, failure to get a vasectomy did not change an inmate's sentence; rather, getting the procedure entitled the inmate to a credit toward his sentence. In other words, Plaintiffs did not serve longer than they were originally sentenced because they did not agree to vasectomies. Their claim actually concerns whether the alleged denial of a sentence credit violated their constitutional rights. Plaintiffs have not alleged a viable constitutional right to a sentence credit.

         In any event, the challenged behavior has stopped. As to any allegation of present or future injury, Plaintiffs' claim is moot. As noted above, the Standing Order has been rescinded and clarified such that it is no longer in effect. Indeed, the General Assembly in Tennessee has now made it illegal to reduce the length of someone's sentence based upon willingness to undergo birth control or sterilization procedures.[4] Therefore, there is no risk of imminent injury. It is unncecessary and imprudent to determine the ...

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