Northampton County Prison officials have moved too fast to ditch a former inmate’s claims that he developed medical problems after exposure to black mold growing in his cell, a federal judge in Pennsylvania has ruled, citing the ongoing pandemic.
County prison officials asked the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to dismiss Jason Swiderski’s civil rights lawsuit for lack of prosecution because he hasn’t responded to the bulk of the government’s discovery requests.
But the steps the Department of Corrections has taken to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 among the prison population “undoubtedly affect an incarcerated person’s ability to produce discovery,” Judge Mark A. Kearney said Thursday.
Swiderski allegedly suffered blurred vision and difficulty breathing while housed at NCP, which he blamed on black mold allegedly growing in his cell. He’s since been moved to a different state correctional institution, according to the court’s opinion.
Swiderski could have made more of an effort to reach out to the court or to prison officials about any problems he’s having responding to discovery requests, the court said. But the prison officials concede that the pandemic has delayed mail delivery to prisoners, including Swiderski, the court said.
“Given the likelihood of ongoing difficulties accessing the law library during the pandemic, we refrain from finding he is personally responsible for his delayed response until he has had an opportunity to explain his failure,” the court said.
The prison officials claimed that quick resolution of Swiderski’s suit was necessary to limit lawyer’s fees paid from taxpayer funds. But moving for dismissal for lack of prosecution rather than waiting for the court to review a pending motion for summary judgment “is too much,” the court said.
The court said it prefers to resolve cases on the merits, but reminded Swiderski that he won’t be able to rely on any information he doesn’t produce.
Swiderski represents himself. MacMain Law Group represents the NCP officials.
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The case is Swiderski v. Harmon, E.D. Pa., No. 19-cv-02321, 7/16/20.