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Washington Inter-Prison Property-Shipping-Fee Class Action Suit Settles For $1,262,500

by John E. Dannenberg

Between 1995 and 2005, Washington State Department of Corrections (WADOC) policy 440.000 required prisoners who were being transferred between WADOC prisons to pre-pay the shipping costs of their personal property in excess of two boxes, or forfeit the property. A class-action lawsuit brought by four WADOC prisoners was settled on February 27, 2008, for $1,262,500 providing for repayment to all such aggrieved prisoners for their costs or losses as well as for attorney fees.

WADOC prisoners Lonnie Burton, Gordon Lebar, James Brigham and Michael Holmberg challenged the propriety of the shipping charges with a class action suit for damages and injunctive relief in Thurston County Superior Court in November 2001. Their claim was that WADOC policy 440.000 violated state statute RCW 72.02.045(3), which laid upon WADOC the responsibility to deliver prisoners’ property upon transfer. Although the Superior Court denied relief, and the appellate later did likewise (Burton v. Lehman, 118 Wn.App.307 (2003)), the state Supreme Court reversed and remanded after holding that the statute did indeed trump policy 440.000. (Burton v. Lehman, 153 Wn.2d 416 (2005).)

Upon remand for trial, the Superior Court agreed with the parties to mediate a formal agreement. The agreement dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims for injunctive relief, their fraud claims and their federal and state-law-based racketeering claims, leaving the question of damages to be resolved.

The sum of $937,000 was set aside to cover claims and attorney fees. From this was first deducted $12,500 - $5,000 for named plaintiff Burton plus $2,500 each for his three named co-plaintiffs. The class was then defined as all prisoners who suffered such losses between November 20, 1998 and May 10, 2005. Subclass One includes those who in fact did pay their shipping costs ($525,000 was reserved for this), while Subclass Two includes those who were forced to lose excess property ($400,000 reserved). WADOC has records of shipping costs paid by Subclass One members, which it is turning over to the settlement administrator. Anyone contesting their records may submit written documentation showing otherwise. However, those in Subclass Two are being paid a flat $75 for lost property. If they are dissatisfied, they may opt out of the settlement and prosecute their own litigation. To the extent that claims exceed the funds, reductions on claims will be made pro rata. If one subclass has unclaimed funds, they may be applied to the reserve for the other subclass.

Importantly, the agreement specifies that no funds paid prisoners under this settlement may be deducted to offset any other owing state-law-based claims (e.g., restitution). However, any federal funds owing are not thus protected.

The agreement provides that attorney fees of 33 1/3% of the $937,000 may be deducted from the prisoners’ settlement. In addition, the court awarded $325,000 in attorney fees and costs for resolving plaintiffs’ due process claims, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988.

Notices of the settlement shall be mailed to all current and former WADOC prisoners who are potentially in the class. Additionally, notices shall be posted in all WADOC law libraries and published in six major newspapers around the state. Claimants have 60 days to file for reimbursement. A settlement administrator (paid for by the state) shall then compute the refunds and mail checks. The funds for any checks unclaimed after 180 days shall be donated to the Legal Foundation of Washington (25%) and to the State Self Insurance Liability Account (75%).

The excellent result achieved in this long-fought battle is the product of the persistent efforts of the four named plaintiffs and their able counsel, Ladonna Jones and David Leen. WADOC now ships transferring prisoners’ property without charge. See: Burton v. Lehman, Thurston County Superior Court, Case No. 01-2-02159-9.The settlement documents are posted on PLN’s website.

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