Seventh Circuit Weighs In on “White or No Underwear” Policy

View David Wright's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.comOccasionally, we see something outside of the Carolinas that is quirky enough to merit a mention in this space.  Such is the Seventh Circuit’s recent decision in Mulvania v. Sheriff of Rock Island County, No. 16-1711 (7th Cir. Mar. 9, 2017).  According to Wikipedia, “In 2015 Rock Island (Illinois) was ranked the 32nd ‘Best Small City’ in the country.”  Not influencing those rankings, apparently, was the policy of the Rock Island County Jail, which “requires female detainees to wear either white underwear or no underwear at all.”  What, you ask, might be the “compelling government interest” that allegedly supports such a policy?  As the Seventh Circuit described, “[t]he Sheriff’s sole stated rationale for the underwear policy was to prevent detainees from extracting ink from colored underwear.”  This was a problem, in the Sheriff’s mind, because “detainees could use that ink to make tattoos.”   Despite the dearth of examples of such tattoo creation by detainees, the Sheriff testified that the policy was founded on such “security concern[s].”  This policy apparently has not been confined to Rock Island County; indeed, the defense argued that the white underwear policy was “within the correctional mainstream.”

The district court denied certification of the “underwear class” and granted summary judgment in favor of defendants.  On the merits, the Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that the record supported the inference that “the asserted security concern about tattoo ink from underwear is not genuine.”

The district court’s class certification decision was based on predominance and numerosity.  As to predominance, the court found that the “damages would vary for individual class members based on factors such as how long a detainee was deprived of her underwear, whether she was on her menstrual cycle or pregnant and other considerations.”  The absence of a “simple or formulaic method to calculate damages,” in the view of the lower court, precluded class certification.

The Seventh Circuit summarily reversed this determination, noting that “this reasoning was a mistake.”  According to the Court of Appeals, “it has long been recognized that the need for individual damages determinations at [a] later stage of the litigation does not itself justify the denial of certification.”

Alas, however, there were not enough underwear detainees to mount a class challenge.  After observing that “a forty-member class is often regarded as sufficient to meet the numerosity requirement,” the Seventh Circuit held that the class period only yielded 29 members–there was no basis upon which the plaintiffs’ amended complaint “related back” to the initial complaint, which might have supported a higher number.

It remains unclear, as of this post, whether Rock Island’s policy has been amended and whether this case will impact its ranking as the “Best Small City.”

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About David Wright

David Wright focuses his practice on the efficient and creative resolution of complex business, product liability and employment disputes through strategic counseling, informed risk assessment, negotiation, alternate dispute resolution, and trial.