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California “Restitution Center” Prisoner’s Suit for Underpayment Certified as Class Action

A prisoner housed at a “restitution center” who spent two years working in the community sued the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) for failure to reimburse her work-related expenses per state statute, or to apply $6,300 that had otherwise been properly deducted from her wages to her restitution account.

California Penal Code §§ 6220-6236 authorizes select prisoners who owe restitution and are willing to work to live in state “restitution centers” while maintaining outside jobs. The state must first reimburse certain work-related expenses from their earnings, and then divide the balance equally among housing costs, victim restitution and a savings account for each prisoner.

Prisoner Elveta Francis was allowed to serve two years of her three-year sentence at such a center. After she got out, she was dismayed to learn that of the $79,442.60 she owed in restitution, only $72.10 of over $6,300 deducted for that purpose had been credited to her account. Moreover, CDCR refused to give her any accounting when she requested a breakdown of the deductions. Therefore she sued not only for herself, but on behalf of other prisoners who were similarly situated. The Superior Court of Los Angeles County dismissed her suit, stating she lacked standing to represent a class because the claims of the class members were factually different.

On appeal, the Second District Court of Appeal, in an unpublished opinion, found that class certification was appropriate because the underlying legal questions were identical. The appellate court held that if only questions of fact as to amounts and timing differed, that would not suffice to extinguish the efficiency of a class action.

After Francis filed her state suit but before the class certification hearing, CDCR finally caved in, providing the accounting she had requested and crediting her restitution account with the missing $6,227.90. However, the state did not pay any of her unreimbursed work-related expenses. Further, CDCR woodenly opposed the class certification, apparently wanting to leave cheated prisoners in the dark unless, like Francis, they learned of the accounting discrepancies and sued individually. CDCR thereby unconscionably violated both the applicable state statutes they were supposed to follow and the trust of the prisoners they were charged to rehabilitate.

The appellate court found that class certification applied both to the “credit class,” (those whose restitution monies were not lawfully credited) and the “reimbursement class” (those who were not reimbursed for work-related expenses). The Court of Appeal rejected the trial court’s finding that a “class” was not “ascertainable” solely because common questions of fact did not predominate, even though there were common questions of law. The appellate court further found that Francis’ tenacity in pursuing the suit demonstrated her adequacy to be the class representative.

Accordingly, the Court of Appeal reversed and remanded the case to the trial court with directions to grant the class certification motion. Francis, represented by Attorneys Barrett Litt and Paul Estaur of Litt, Estuar, Harrison & Kitson LLP, was awarded costs on appeal. See: Francis v. State of California, California Court of Appeal, 2nd District, Case No. B197198 (April 29, 2008), 2008 WL 1874426.

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Related legal case

Francis v. State of California