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Ninth Circuit Holds California Prison Officials Responsible for Providing Reasonable Accommodations to Disabled Prisoners and Parolees Held in County Jails

In the latest chapter of a legal saga spanning 16 years, on September 7, 2010 the Ninth Circuit rejected a renewed attempt by California prison officials to shirk their responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act (RA) and the federal Due Process Clause to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled prisoners and parolees housed in county jails.

However, finding that the evidence upon which the district court relied was insufficient to justify the scope of the system-wide injunctive relief it had ordered, the Court of Appeals remanded the case to the district court to allow it to obtain additional evidence concerning the nature and extent of disability violations in the jails. 
In 1994, a class of all present and future California state prisoners and parolees with mobility, vision, hearing, kidney and learning disabilities (collectively referred to as the Armstrong plaintiffs) sued California state officials responsible for the operation of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH).

A series of decisions by the district court and the Ninth Circuit established that the ADA and RA applied to state prisoners, and that the defendants’ policies and procedures were inadequate and violative of the rights of disabled prisoners and parolees. In 2001, the district court entered a permanent injunction directing enforcement of a remedial plan with respect to the CDCR defendants. [See: PLN, July 2003, p.14; Sept. 1998, p.13; Sept. 1997, p.3].
A year later, the court entered a comparable permanent injunction with respect to the BPH defendants. PLN readers should note that parallel class-action litigation began in 1996 with respect to prisoners with developmental disabilities. That litigation led in 2001 to a settlement agreement known as the Clark Remedial Plan (CRP). In July 2009, California officials moved to terminate the CRP. The district court denied the state’s motion in September 2010. [See: PLN, April 2011, p.40].
In 2009, the Armstrong plaintiffs moved for an order requiring the defendants to create and implement a computerized system for tracking class members housed in county jails, to ensure that they received necessary accommodations as they moved through the system and to ensure they had access to a workable grievance procedure (California houses state prisoners and parolees in county jails for a variety of reasons, sometimes related to parole violations, other times for in-custody drug treatment. The numbers are significant; Alameda and Sacramento County jails, for example, each hold an average of 1,000 parolees a day).

Relying on a regulation implementing the ADA, 28 C.F.R. § 35.130(b)(1), which explicitly prohibits a public entity from indirectly avoiding its ADA obligations by operating “through contractual, licensing, or other arrangements” with third parties, the district court granted the plaintiffs’ motion.
On appeal, the defendants argued that they were not obligated to accommodate the needs of disabled prisoners and parolees held in county jails. Their principal contention was that the regulation relied upon by the district court was inconsistent with Congressional intent. The Ninth Circuit had little difficulty in rejecting that argument as “baseless.”

“[E]ven in the absence of a regulation explicitly saying so,” the Court of Appeals held, “a State cannot avoid its obligations under federal law by contracting with a third party to perform its functions. The rights of individuals are not so ethereal nor so easily avoided.”
On the other hand, calling it a “close question,” the Ninth Circuit concluded that the district court had abused its discretion by granting system-wide relief on the basis of evidence it viewed as “composed largely of single incidents that could be isolated.” Still, the state’s failure to track class members housed in county jails – what the Ninth Circuit characterized as a system-wide deficiency – “took plaintiffs much of the way towards a showing sufficient to justify ... system-wide relief.” While it was “not enough in itself,” the appellate court held, “not much more evidence” was needed. See: Armstrong v. Schwarzenegger, 622 F.3d 1058 (9th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Armstrong v. Schwarzenegger