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Idaho DOC Settles 30-year-old Class-action Lawsuit

Idaho officials first tried to suppress what they called an “inflammatory” and “libelous” report filed by a court-appointed expert in a longstanding suit involving the state’s prison system. They then finally agreed to settle the 30-year-old litigation based upon the report’s findings.

In 1981, a flood of federal lawsuits was filed by prisoners at the Idaho State Correctional Institution (ISCI) in Boise, alleging that they were victims of violence and rape by fellow prisoners, had been denied adequate medical care and were subjected to extreme overcrowding.

A judge combined all the cases into a single class-action lawsuit which became known as the Balla litigation after lead plaintiff Walter Balla.

Over the next three decades, Idaho prisoners secured several major victories in the case, including court orders requiring state prison officials to stop overcrowding; reduce levels of violence; provide warm clothing; improve medical and mental health treatment and rehabilitative programs; and take other measures to ensure that ISCI would cease being “an extremely violent place to live,” as former U.S. District Court Judge Harold Ryan once described the facility.

Despite these important victories, however, prison officials continued to deprive prisoners of adequate medical treatment. This prompted U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill to issue an order in July 2011 appointing Dr. Marc Stern, a correctional health care expert, to review the medical system in the Idaho Department of Correction (IDOC).

Prison officials did not like what Dr. Stern had to say and didn’t want anyone to see his February 2012 report. They moved to seal the report in March 2012, claiming it was “inflammatory,” “libelous” and might spark an “unjustified public scandal.”

“The public, and the inmate class members in particular, will likely not understand that at this stage of the proceedings the Report is merely a communication which does not constitute an opinion of the Court,” claimed Idaho Deputy Attorney General Colleen Zahn.

Dr. Stern’s report contained “serious deficiencies” which “resulted in inflammatory and unsupported legal findings accusing the Department and its third-party medical contractor, Corizon, Inc., of serious constitutional violations,” Zahn wrote. She even claimed that dissemination of Stern’s findings would amount to libel.

However, lead plaintiffs’ attorney Allison Blackman noted that the state failed to offer any compelling reason to seal the report other than the fact they didn’t like what it had to say.

“In reality, it appears defendants bring their motion based on fear that unsealing the report might subject them to embarrassment, incrimination, or additional litigation,” Blackman wrote.

Dr. Stern stated in his report, which was unsealed on March 19, 2012, that he found significant problems with medical care in the IDOC – including nursing mistakes that may have resulted in some prisoners’ deaths; overcrowding at the pharmacy site where prisoners receive their daily medications; and terminally ill prisoners sometimes being denied food, water and pain medication, and left lying in soiled linens.

Although the IDOC and its Brentwood, Tennessee-based medical contractor, Corizon, claimed that Dr. Stern’s report was inaccurate, it apparently brought them to their senses. That, and perhaps the fact that in 2010 and 2011 the state had fined Corizon, then operating as Correctional Medical Services, over $382,500 for failing to meet contractual obligations related to the provision of medical care.

On May 15, 2012, the plaintiffs and IDOC officials signed an agreement designed to finally end the 30-year-old case, contingent upon legislative approval of more than $1.6 million in staffing increases and other state prison system costs.

The agreement requires more nurses and other medical staff at ISCI, as well as improvements to the prison pharmacy and increased oversight. The IDOC is expected to add approximately 12 full-time staff positions while Corizon will add the equivalent of more than 10 full-time positions. Corizon’s contract with the IDOC will cover the cost of the additional employees; the company was not a defendant in the case.

IDOC Director Brent Reinke said he was confident the state legislature would approve the budget increase. “I think they’re going to be quite supportive once we explain to them why it’s important and what we’re trying to accomplish in this settlement,” he stated.

The district court will retain oversight of other rulings in the case, including an order imposing prison population caps. See: Balla v. Idaho State Board of Corrections, U.S.D.C. (D. Idaho), Case No. 1:81-cv-01165-BLW.

Separately, on April 17, 2012, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s award of $76,185.60 in attorney fees, $1,249.20 in costs and $46.94 for postage and office supplies in Balla.

During the protracted litigation, in an effort to relieve overcrowding, Idaho had transferred hundreds of state prisoners to facilities in Texas, Oklahoma and Minnesota. [See, e.g., PLN, March 2010, p.34; Nov. 2006, pp.38, 27]. Idaho subsequently terminated the Texas contract in October 2008 in order to return 300 of its out-of-state prisoners. To make room for them, IDOC officials elected to convert an old prison warehouse into a dormitory.

After reading newspaper accounts of the warehouse plan, the law firm of Stoel Rives, which served as class counsel in Balla, informed the state that its plan would violate the district court’s injunction in the case.

The IDOC implemented the plan anyway, moving 200 prisoners into the warehouse and requiring them to share four toilets, three urinals and four sinks. They had to be transported to other units for showers. Warehouse conditions were worse than in other units, and prisoners were not allowed to retain valuable property due to a lack of secure storage space.

“The State’s plan failed immediately, even before the prisoners returning from Texas arrived,” the appellate court noted. On January 2, 2009, “within a few hours of being moved to the warehouse, the 200 inmates rioted. The prison lost control. The riot ‘tore the place apart.’”

Even though the prison was overcrowded and the warehouse destroyed, the 300 state prisoners housed in Texas were flown back to Idaho anyway.

On January 5, 2009, the state admitted to class counsel and the district court that it was in violation of the injunction. The defendants asserted that it was “‘reasonable’ and ‘realistic’ considering ‘the realities of prison management’” to take at least two months to correct the violation.

Class counsel disagreed and moved to hold the state in contempt on January 16, 2009. “Evidently, what was ‘realistic’ considering ‘the realities of prison management’ changed when the state received the contempt motion,” the Ninth Circuit wrote. The state brought itself into compliance with the injunction by the date of the contempt hearing, so the district court did not hold the defendants in contempt or impose sanctions for their admitted violations.

Class counsel moved to recover its costs for dealing with the injunction violations and for two years of monitoring the case, from December 11, 2007 through June 22, 2009. In all, Stoel Rives sought $77,608.20 in attorney fees, $2,249.20 in costs and expenses, and $269.10 in postage and office supplies for the class representative. The district court reduced the requested amounts and awarded $76,185.60 in attorney fees, $1,249.20 in costs and $46.94 for postage and supplies.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed on appeal, rejecting the state’s argument that the district court had abused its discretion by awarding fees related to the contempt motion when the court denied that motion. “The object of the motion was to obtain compliance, not to win an order hopefully leading to compliance,” the appellate court explained. “The object was attained. If in a battle to take a hill, the adversary flees instead of fighting to a bloody defeat, the taking of the hill makes the battle a victory.”

As such, the Court of Appeals held that “the district court acted within the bounds of its discretion in awarding fees in a reasonable amount for bringing about the conformity with the injunction.” See: Balla v. Idaho, 677 F.3d 910 (9th Cir. 2012). Since the resolution of the case, class counsel has filed a motion seeking another $182,640.10 in attorney fees and $1,994.29 in costs, which remains pending.

Additional sources: Associated Press,, Washington Examiner

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Related legal cases

Balla v. Idaho State Board of Corrections

Balla v. Idaho