August 25, 2022

NM Supreme Court upholds dismissal of case involving COVID-19 conditions in prisons

Andy Lyman

The New Mexico Supreme Court

The New Mexico Supreme Court today on Thursday issued a written opinion that upheld a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit aimed at the state’s correctional department over the release of inmates during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In the opinion, New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Michael Vigil wrote that a Santa Fe District Court judge was right to dismiss a lawsuit against the state that sought to release inmates as a precaution against COVID-19 outbreaks in state correctional facilities. The lower court judge dismissed the case on the grounds that the plaintiffs, who were eight inmates, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, did not first exhaust all administrative appeal options before filing the suit. Vigil wrote that a “balance must be struck” that allows the New Mexico Corrections Department to address concerns through a grievance process but does not overburden the department. 

“We cannot say that the entire inmate population of New Mexico may be considered to have exhausted administrative remedies simply because some unnamed class member/inmate tried to file a grievance,” Vigil wrote. “Similarly, we cannot say that the nearly 6,000 inmates must each individually show they have exhausted administrative remedies. Such a requirement for all class members could unduly burden the prison’s complaint system and delay resolution of grievances.” 

The original suit asked the court to order the Corrections Department to lessen the population in state correctional facilities and to take further steps to protect inmates from COVID-19 by providing masks and testing and to better isolate inmates who became infected. 

The high court also ruled that the administrative appeal requirement in cases like this is “satisfied as to an entire plaintiff class when one or more named class members have exhausted administrative remedies for each claim raised by the class,” but the court also noted that none of the plaintiffs in the case filed an administrative appeal with the Department of Corrections. Vigil also wrote that the process “cannot be circumvented by bringing claims through a representative entity,” such as the two organizations that were also listed as plaintiffs.

The state supreme court also tasked one of its rules committees to come up with recommendations for how to allow a class of inmates to challenge the conditions of correctional facilities.