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Class Action Certified in California Federal Civil Rights Suit Against TransCor

On February 16, 2010, a California U.S. District Court certified a class action lawsuit against Nashville, Tennessee-based private prison transport company TransCor America for transporting prisoners more than 24 continuous hours without giving them an opportunity to rest overnight in a bed.

The class action suit was brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and alleged that TransCor subjected prisoners to cruel and unusual punishment during long journeys exceeding 24 hours by keeping them shackled and in a cage while depriving them of access to regular food, water or toilet facilities, and for failing to allow them to sleep overnight in a bunk. The lawsuit also raises claims under California’s Tom Bane Civil Rights Act, Cal. Civil Code § 52.1. The plaintiffs filed a motion for class certification, which TransCor opposed.

Accepting as true any substantive allegations made in the complaint, the district court held that the requested class of “all pretrial detainees who were transported by TransCor America, LLC, its agents, or employees, and forced to remain in the transport van for more than 24 hours” was too broad. The court limited the claims to pretrial detainees and prisoners who were transported for more than 24 hours from February 14, 2006 to the present date, even if transferred from one vehicle to another with each individual transport being less than 24 hours, and a subclass for prisoners who were transported by the prison system and TransCor combined for more than 24 hours.

The district court specifically excluded prisoners who were transported earlier than February 14, 2006, but had the legal right to toll their claims due to insanity or their status as minors. The court refused to exclude federal prisoners, but excluded prisoners and pretrial detainees transported on behalf of federal officials because a § 1983 action could not be brought against federal authorities and their agents.

The court found that TransCor had not shown it had an adequate administrative remedy that prisoners were required to exhaust under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, and that one named plaintiff, who was no longer a prisoner when the lawsuit was filed, was not required to exhaust administrative remedies at all.

The district court held that the named plaintiffs showed more than de minimus physical injuries and class members were not required to separately do so. The class met the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(a) requirements of numerosity, commonality, typicality and adequacy. Further, the pendent state claims raised under the Tom Bane Civil Rights Act could be certified as a class action because the Act did not prohibit class actions and the use of handcuffs and shackles on transported prisoners satisfied the Act’s “coercion” requirement.

The court thus granted the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification and certified the class as described above. Attorneys Andrew C. Schwartz, Karen L. Snell and Mark E. Merin were appointed as class counsel, and the class notification was approved by the court on March 16, 2010. The case remains pending, and PLN has published several notices regarding the class certification in this suit. See: Schilling v. TransCor America, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 3:08-cv-00941-SI.

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