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Class Certification Denied in Suit by Disabled NM Children Prisoners

The plaintiffs, 16 mentally or developmentally disabled children in state custody, alleged a failure to provide protections and therapeutic services required by federal statutes and Constitution, seeking certification of a class of children "in or at risk of State custody" who have any form of mental and/or developmental disability for which they require some kind of therapeutic service or support.

The Eleventh Amendment does not bar plaintiffs' claims for injunctive relief. Idaho v. Couer d'Alene Tribe does not overturn this rule; it creates a "narrow limitation" of the Ex parte Young doctrine for cases involving a "special sovereignty interest." Administration of a welfare program partly funded by the federal government does not make that cut.

Class certification was properly denied for lack of commonality and typicality. Although commonality requires only a single common issue, there is not one here; the plaintiffs come into the system in a variety ways, are placed by the state in a variety of different kinds of settings. At 1289: "Other than all being disabled in some way and having had some sort of contact with New Mexico's child welfare system, no common factual link joins these plaintiffs." As to typicality, there is no one statutory or constitutional claim common to all named plaintiffs and all class members, and the court refuses to credit the claim that "systematic failures in defendants' child welfare delivery system deny all members of the class access to legally mandated services. ..." At 1289: "We refuse to read an allegation of systematic failures as a moniker for meeting the class action requirements." The court also reads the complaint to pair plaintiffs with statutory claims and finds that there are no statutory claims common to all plaintiffs.

The district court properly abstained under Younger v. Harris because the named plaintiffs, while in state custody, are or were subject to dispositional and biannual review hearings in the state Children's Court, which are nonadversarial but are judicial in nature, and which go on as long as they are in state custody. These are "ongoing state judicial proceedings" for Younger purposes. This action seeks to place the federal court in an oversight role over the children, which would involve making dispositional decisions of the same sort that the state courts make. While the court is unsure that plaintiffs' constitutional claims can be raised in these state proceedings, that uncertainty favors abstention.

This holding in substance permanently immunizes a huge state custodial program from federal judicial scrutiny. It is contrary to decisions in other jurisdictions, e.g., Marisol A. v. Giuliani, 929 F.Supp. 662, 689 (S.D.N.Y. 1996). See: J.B. ex rel. Hart v. Valdez, 186 F.3d 1280 (10th Cir. 1999).

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Related legal case

J.B. ex rel. Hart v. Valdez