Second Circuit Announces Stringent Standards for Administrative Closure of a Civil Case When a Plaintiff Is Unavailable

In Rodriguez v. Gusman, No. 19-2213 (2d Cir. Aug. 31, 2020), the Second Circuit holds that administrative closure of a civil case when a plaintiff is absent is “a last resort that is appropriate only when all other alternatives are virtually impossible or so impractical as to significantly interfere with the operations of the district court or impose an unreasonable burden on the party opposing the plaintiff’s claim.” Here, the district court is reversed because “numerous alternatives” to closure existed and were not explored.

“Rodriguez is a former lawful permanent resident of the United States who currently lives in the Dominican Republic.” While he was incarcerated in New York’s Eastern Correctional Facility (“Eastern”), he alleges that he was subjected to “deliberate indifference to his medical needs” (and later, First Amendment retaliation). Rodriguez was deported after he was released and barred from returning to the United States for twenty years.

While his pro bono counsel continued to litigate the case actively, the district court closed the matter administratively on its own motion. It so ordered “considering the logistical difficulties and substantial cost of continuing with discovery; the logistical difficulties, required technological resources from the court, and prohibitive cost of trying the case without the Plaintiff in the courtroom; and the inefficient use of judicial resources in addressing the difficulties and disputes between the parties that would no doubt arise and require court intervention and resolution throughout the litigation, including throughout the remaining discovery and at trial.”

The Second Circuit vacates. It notes that “[t]he issue of what standard a court applies in deciding whether to administratively close a case is an issue of first impression in our Circuit.” Citing a decision from the Fourth Circuit on the topic, the panel holds that it is not enough that the alternative to closure be simply “infeasible.” Because “an administrative closure effectively ends a case,” this procedure applied to civil rights litigation “may insulate officials from liability for violating the rights of prisoners or immigrants subject to removal.”

The panel allows that the district court has the power, as a general matter, to administratively close a case, as part of its “inherent authority to control the disposition of the causes on its docket and has power to stay an action as an incident of that authority.” Thus, if there is a “slim likelihood that an alternative will be possible, a district court may … administratively close the case.”

Yet here, the district court abused its discretion “because Rodriguez and other witnesses can adequately testify or be deposed by video, Defendants can obtain additional medical examinations through local physicians in the Dominican Republic or by sending a physician there from the United States, and Rodriguez’s pro bono counsel can effectively prosecute the case in Rodriguez’s absence.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 43(a) authorizes testimony by video for good cause. Although the plaintiff’s physical absence from trial could be insurmountable if they were pro se and representing themselves at trial, here the plaintiff was represented by appointed counsel. Physical examination of the plaintiff under Fed. R. Civ. P. 35 could be carried out in the Dominican Republic. Depositions could be taken by video-conference. Nothing in the record suggests that one of the above-mentioned alternatives would be virtually impossible or so impractical as to significantly interfere with the operations of the district court or impose an unreasonable burden on Defendants in the circumstances of the present case.”

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