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Tenth Circuit Vacates Class Certification in Jail Conditions Suit; Case Settles Following Remand

On February 4, 2009, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals granted a Colorado sheriff’s interlocutory appeal challenging a class certification order and remanded the case for further proceedings, where it eventually settled in April 2011.

Four jail prisoners sued Garfield County officials alleging, among other things, that the use of “compliance devices” – restraint chairs, pepperball guns, Tasers, pepper spray and electroshock belts – violated their constitutional rights; that the jail unconstitutionally deprived indigent prisoners of mental health care; and that prisoners were routinely placed on supermax status without due process of law. The plaintiffs, Samuel Lincoln, Clarence Vandehey, William Langley and Jared Hogue, sought declaratory and injunctive relief.

Faced with the prospect of their claims becoming moot due to their imminent release from the jail, the plaintiffs moved to certify the suit as a class action. The district court granted the motion, certifying a class of “all persons who, now or at any time in the future, are or will be prisoners in the custody of the Garfield County Sheriff’s Department.” The county then filed an interlocutory appeal.

Noting that it had never “addressed the standard it will use in determining whether to grant” an interlocutory appeal of a class certification order, the Tenth Circuit decided in “a matter of first impression” to follow the lead of its sister circuits. The appellate court initially recognized that interlocutory review is “the exception rather than the rule.”

However, such review “is generally appropriate in three types of cases.” Those include: (1) “‘death knell cases,’ which refers to situations in which a questionable class certification order is likely to force either a plaintiff or a defendant to resolve the case based on considerations independent of the merits”; (2) the narrow category of cases which further “an interest in facilitating the development of the law”; and (3) cases seeking “immediate review” of “manifestly erroneous” decisions.

The Tenth Circuit wrote that it “will not use this third category ... as a vehicle to micromanage class actions.... But where the deficiencies of a certification order are both significant and readily ascertainable, taking review is appropriate to save the parties from a long and costly trial that is potentially for naught.... In most instances, a manifest error will be one of law, rather than an incorrect application of the law to a given set of facts.” Additionally, “as long as the district court applies the proper Rule 23 standard,” the Court of Appeals said it “will defer to its class certification ruling” if the “decision falls within the bounds of rationally available choices given the facts and law involved....”

The Tenth Circuit concluded that the district court had abused its discretion when it erroneously expanded the scope of the plaintiffs’ mental health care claim from indigent prisoners to all detainees. The Court also determined that “on a broader scale,” the district court misapplied the Rule 23 analysis expressed in Shook v. Board of County Comm’rs, 543 F.3d 597, 603 (10th Cir. 2008). In doing so, the district court failed to conduct the rigorous analysis that is required.

Finally, the Court of Appeals held that “the district court also erred in ‘failing to hold’ the detainees to their burden under Rule 23(b)(2)”; of showing “that the party opposing class certification ‘acted or refused to act’ on grounds generally applicable to the class, such that final injunctive or declaratory relief is appropriate as to ‘the class as a whole.’”
Suggesting that the plaintiffs had tried to “make an end-run around this rule by requesting an injunction that operates at some ‘stratospheric level of abstraction,’” the Tenth Circuit found the district court had abused its discretion by failing to require the plaintiffs to carry their burden of showing that enjoining a “wide range of behavior” through a broadly-framed class was plausible.

The appellate court noted for consideration on remand that the plaintiffs’ “pleadings are ... plagued by generalities,” and suggested that class certification was unnecessary because the plaintiffs could seek damages even after they were released from confinement. Finally, one Tenth Circuit judge, in a concurring opinion, expressed his “understanding of how district courts should negotiate the complex analysis required by Rule 23 for class certification while avoiding a consideration of the merits” under the Prison Litigation Reform Act. See: Vallario v. Vandehey, 554 F.3d 1259 (10th Cir. 2009).

Following remand, the case settled on April 22, 2011. Under the terms of the settlement the county will pay the ACLU of Colorado, which represented the plaintiffs, $69,200 in costs. While the suit was pending the jail had voluntarily changed some of its policies, procedures and training to address issues raised during the litigation. For example, the county “added to the Jail two ‘safety’ cells with padded walls so that agitated inmates could ‘cool down’ safely without the use of full-body restraints such as restraint chairs.” County officials also abolished the facility’s “supermax” classification, disbanded the jail’s CERT team, discontinued the use of pepperball guns and added mental health services for prisoners.

As part of the settlement, the county agreed to ensure that such policy changes would remain in effect – including the use of safety cells, restraint chair checks, and mental health care services and staffing levels. Any material changes in those policies must be reported to the ACLU of Colorado for a period of two years.

The county spun the settlement as a victory, saying in a press release that “The way our deputies and staff delivered services withstood the scrutiny of the small army of lawyers and experts that the ACLU recruited to find fault with the jail.” Of course, the significant changes made at the Garfield County jail as a result of the lawsuit represent a victory for all prisoners held at that facility. See: Vandehey v. Vallario, U.S.D.C. (D. Col.), Case No. 1:06-cv-01405-WYD-MJW.

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Vandehey v. Vallario

Vallario v. Vandehey