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Class Certification Denied in Colorado Jail Mental Health Challenge

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the denial of class-action certification in a lawsuit concerning mental health care at a Colorado jail.

Several prisoners at the El Paso County Jail filed suit in federal court in 2002, alleging inadequate treatment of their mental illnesses. They challenged a wide range of jail practices, including insufficient mental health care; inadequate protection against self-inflicted injuries and suicides; deficient mental health screening and medication distribution; and improper use of detention cells, restraints, pepper spray and Tasers.

The district court initially denied the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification without considering any of the requisite factors under Fed.R.Civ.P. 23. Instead, the court focused entirely on the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). The Tenth Circuit reversed on appeal, holding “that the PLRA does not alter the class certification analysis under Rule 23,” and finding the district court had erred in failing to consider the Fed.R.Civ.P. 23 factors. See: Shook v. El Paso County, 286 F.3d 963 (10th Cir. 2004) [PLN, April 2006, p.31].

On remand, the plaintiffs renewed their class certification motion, proposing a class of all present and future prisoners with serious mental health needs. The district court again denied the motion, finding the plaintiffs had failed to satisfy Rule 23(a)(2), (a)(3) or (b)(2). “Plaintiffs failed to bear their burden ... of showing that defendants acted on grounds generally applicable to the class,” the court held.

Noting that it reviewed class certification decisions under an abuse of discretion standard, the Tenth Circuit affirmed, finding that the denial of class certification “fell within the boundaries set out by Rule 23(b)(2), governing case law, and the facts as alleged.” The appellate court indicated that while it “very well may have made a different decision ... and while other district courts perhaps could have chosen, or could choose, to certify similar classes,” it could not “say the district court’s assessment was beyond the pale.”

The Tenth Circuit suggested that the problems which resulted in denial of class certification “may have been mitigated, or perhaps avoided, by the use of subclasses. ... Plaintiffs could have sought to define subclasses that were ‘amenable to uniform group remedies,’ and in so doing, might have been able to create the cohesion among class members required by Rule 23(b)(2).” But it was the plaintiffs’ burden to propose such subclasses, which they failed to do.

Explaining that it was deciding only “the narrow question whether the relationship between the class proposed and the relief sought in this suit satisfies Rule 23(b)(2),” the Court of Appeals observed that “different named plaintiffs are of course ... free to pursue another class action, defining a class (or subclasses) for whom relief is deemed more manageable, within the bounds of the district court’s discretion.”

Although ultimately determined to be harmless error, the appellate court confessed to being “as surprised as plaintiffs that on remand the district court continued to rely as an alternative ground for denying class certification on ‘the inability of the court to fashion the remedy requested, given the ... jurisdictional limitations imposed by the [PLRA].” The Tenth Circuit explained that its earlier decision was clear, and that “any reference at the class certification stage to the PLRA’s limitations on the district court’s ability to grant relief was error.”

The lower court’s denial of class certification was affirmed. See: Shook v. Board of County Comm’rs, 543 F.3d 597 (10th Cir. 2008).

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Related legal case

Shook v. Board of County Comm’rs