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Washington Prisoners Challenge Confinement Beyond EERD; Class Action Certification Granted; Defendants Get Qualified Immunityndants Get Qualified Immunity

Washington Prisoners Challenge Confinement Beyond EERD; Class Action
Certification Granted; Defendants Get Qualified Immunity

On December 22, 2004, four former prisoners of the Washington
Department Of Corrections (WDOC) brought suit in federal court,
challenging the constitutionality of WDOC's practice of confining
prisoners beyond their earned early release dates" (EERD), without a
hearing. On April 4, 2005, the district court certified the action as a
class action.

The Washington State Legislature enacted legislation establishing
a program" allowing prisoners to 'earn early release credits' (EERC's)
based upon their good behavior and participation in various correctional
programs such as work, chemical dependency programs, and education."
Depending upon the offense, a prisoner's confinement may be reduced
through EERCs by 15%, 33%, or 50%. Except for a portion of a sentence
that, by law, specifically disallows EERCs (such as a gun or weapon in
half the portion of a sentence), as long as [the prisoner] follows the
rules and regulations all the [WDOC], [he or she] earns EERCs.

WDOC prisoner release dates are initially calculated by
determining the fixed days of incarceration imposed by the sentencing
court." The EERCs are deducted from the statutory maximum imposed by the
sentencing court and this becomes the 'earned early release date' for the
prisoner. Each prisoner is informed of their 'maximum date' and
their 'minimum date.' The 'maximum date' assumes that the [prisoner] will
fail to earn any EERCs. The 'minimum date' represents when [the prisoner]
shall be released from incarceration based upon the EERCs that the person
has armed and can earn in the future."

WDOC prisoners are entitled to release upon the minimum date,"
which may be altered only by forfeiture of previously awarded, and/or
future, EERCs upon a finding that the prisoner is guilty of a major
disciplinary infraction.

Former WDOC prisoners Samantha Chaney, Brandalyn Marshall, Ryan
Tatt, and Joshua Bradford, brought suit against former WDOC Secretary
Joseph Lehman, alleging that they were confined from four to 65 days
beyond their EERDs, without a hearing. Plaintiff alleged that Defendant
failed to formulate and implement policies and procedures to guarantee a
due process hearing before Plaintiffs... were denied early release from
incarceration and none of the Plaintiffs... were afforded such a hearing,
resulting in arbitrary and/or capricious denial by personnel within the
[WDOC] of the constitutional rights of Plaintiffs,... or denial of those
constitutional rights due to the conscious disregard of those rights by
corrections personnel."

Plaintiffs allege violations of the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth
Amendments to the United States Constitution. They seek the declaratory
and injunctive relief, [m]onetary damages in an amount to be proven at
trial," and costs and reasonable attorney's fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §
1988 and other applicable laws[.]

Plaintiffs moved for class certification, alleging that there are
approximately 3,000 class members, and the size of the class will increase
over time until injunctive relief is granted[.]" Subsequent request for
disclosure under Washington's freedom of information statutes revealed,
however, that as of every first 2005, 6,044 inmates... were not released
on their [EERDs].

On April 4, 2005, the district court issued an order granting
class certification. In doing so, the court first relied upon the United
States Supreme Court's March 7, 2005 decision in Wilkinson v. Dotson, 125
S.Ct. 1242 (2005), to reject Defendant's argument that a § 1983 complaint
is not the appropriate avenue for relief. The court also rejected
Defendants' argument that the class representatives lacked standing
because their claims for injunctive relief are moot [since] ...
Plaintiffs or released from the Departments custody." The court found
that Plaintiffs released from incarceration or no longer in community
custody have claims that have become moot, and may not seek injunctive
relief as a class representative," but they did have standing to seek
damages. Additionally, class representatives formally incarcerated which
are now placed in community custody have standing to seek damages,
declaratory and injunctive relief." Finally, the court found that all of
the class certification requirements of FRCP 23(a) and (b)(2) were
adequately established. See: Cheney v. Lehman, USDC No. 04-5881 FDB/JKA
(W.D. Wa. 2005).

Shortly after this ruling the court dismissed the case holding
that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity from money
damages. The plaintiffs have appealed.

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Related legal case

Cheney v. Lehman