A Delaware federal judge on Friday postponed a key hearing on motions to dismiss a lawsuit by the survivors of the deadly Feb. 1 takeover of James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, after an attorney for two former governors said the parties were actively pursuing talks in the case.
The decision to scrap oral argument, originally scheduled for Nov. 20, came just hours after Richards, Layton & Finger director C. Malcolm Cochran IV wrote to U.S. District Judge Richard G. Andrews of the District of Delaware on Thursday afternoon asking for the delay. Though the letter was filed by a member of the state’s legal team, Cochran said both sides were united in making the request.
“Among other issues, the parties are discussing an amendment to the complaint,” Cochran said in the one-page letter. “We wish to proceed efficiently before the court, and so are jointly requesting a postponement of Monday’s argument on the pending motions to dismiss.”
The parties plan to report back to Andrews by Dec. 15 on “any issues” that they would need to present to the court, Cochran wrote.
Andrews’ oral order granting the delay did not contain a written explanation, and it was not clear Friday morning when or if the hearing would take place.
Cochran, who is representing former Delaware Govs. Ruth Ann Minner and Jack Markell, did not return a call seeking comment on the issues being discussed, and Thomas S. Neuberger, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said he was “not at liberty to make any comment.”
Neuberger is representing the family of Lt. Steven Floyd Sr., a veteran correction officer who was killed in the nearly 18-hour takeover earlier this year, as well as five Delaware Department of Correction employees who survived the attack. His clients have accused current and former state officials of failing to address critical security concerns that led to the siege.
Specifically, the suit alleges that Minner and Markell hid chronic understaffing from lawmakers and the public and that Markell had enacted policies as governor that left corrections guards outmanned and overworked. Markell’s eight years in office ended in January, and Minner has not served in the post since 2009.
State officials moved to dismiss the suit in June, claiming qualified and legislative immunity. Among other things, they argued that the state was under no constitutional obligation to ensure safe working conditions at the Smyrna prison.
Based on court filings, oral argument next week was expected to focus at least in part on the issue of standing.
Neuberger and his team have pointed to a 2005 ruling from former U.S. District Judge Joseph J. Farnan Jr. denying a motion to dismiss the case of a counselor who was raped in the same prison as reason for the suit to continue. Attorneys for the state, on the other hand, have said that a pair of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have heightened federal pleading standards since Farnan ruled in favor of the counselor, Cassandra Arnold.
Arnold later settled her case against the state for $1.6 million.
The current suit, captioned Floyd v. Minner, also names three former DOC commissioners, current Commissioner Perry Phelps and three directors of the Office of Management and Budget as defendants.
The sides have agreed to stay discovery in the case, pending a ruling on the motions to dismiss. However, third-party discovery, relating only to damages, has been allowed to proceed.