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Ninth Circuit Rebuffs California’s Attempt to Terminate CDCR Medical Receivership

In a strongly worded opinion, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of a motion filed by California state officials to terminate the receivership established in 2006 to oversee and manage delivery of medical care to prisoners in the custody of the California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

In January 2002 the state entered into a “stipulation and order for injunctive relief” designed to remedy Eighth Amendment violations raised in a class-action suit brought by California prisoners challenging deficiencies in medical care. The order provided for remedial measures to be implemented on a rolling basis, several prisons at a time. [See: PLN, July 2001, p.5; Feb. 2003, p.18].

After three years, however, not one prison had successfully implemented the remedial measures. Meanwhile, a “significant number” of prisoners were dying as a result of substandard medical care – a fact then openly acknowledged by the state.

In a six-day evidentiary hearing, the district court heard testimony from experts who described as “abysmal” the CDCR’s medical care delivery system, where “medical care too often sinks below gross negligence to outright cruelty.” The state did not seriously contest this testimony and conceded that it was unable to comply with the consent orders to which it had previously stipulated.

In October 2005, the district court observed, “[I]f the system is not drastically overhauled, an unconscionable degree of suffering and death is sure to continue.” Three months later the court issued an order appointing a Receiver, in whom it vested all of the powers then held by the Secretary of the CDCR with respect to the delivery of medical care. The state neither objected to nor appealed this order. [See: PLN, March 2006, p.1].

The Receiver filed a draft Plan of Action in May 2007 that called for the construction of 10,000 new prison medical beds. The state joined in the motion, which the district court granted, and agreed to all of the Receiver’s subsequent revisions over the course of the next 14 months. [See: PLN, Nov. 2007, p.38].

State officials balked, however, when they were first asked, then ordered, to fund the court-approved construction by turning hundreds of millions of dollars over to the Receiver’s office.

In January 2009 the state moved the district court to terminate the receivership and replace it with a special mastership (a position with much less power), arguing that the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) permits appointment of the latter but not the former. Arguing further that the PLRA bars the district court from ordering prison construction, the state also moved to end the Receiver’s construction plans.

The court denied the motion to terminate the receivership in March 2009 and held the state’s request to end the Receiver’s construction plans was premature because those plans had not yet been finalized. [See: PLN, Aug. 2009, p.20]. The state appealed.

The Ninth Circuit noted that the state, which had previously admitted its inability to comply with consent orders intended to remedy ongoing Eighth Amendment violations in its prisons, and then acknowledged “without reservation” the district court’s authority to appoint a receiver, was “in a poor position” to suddenly object to the receivership.

On the merits, the Ninth Circuit found that the PLRA does not deprive the district court of its traditional equitable power to appoint a receiver; that the record in the case amply justified the appointment of a receiver, both initially and currently; and that the challenge to the Receiver’s still-pending construction plans was indeed premature. The district court’s denial of the state’s motion was therefore affirmed. See: Plata v. Schwarzenegger, 603 F.3d 1088 (9th Cir. 2010).

PLN has reported extensively on the Plata litigation, which is presently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court on the state’s appeal of an order by a three-judge panel that the CDCR reduce its population by around 40,000 prisoners over a two-year period. [See: PLN, Aug. 2010, p.1; July 2010, p.14].

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Related legal case

Plata v. Schwarzenegger