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Ninth Circuit Again Rejects California’s Resistance to ADA Obligations

Ninth Circuit Again Rejects California’s Resistance to ADA Obligations

by Mark Wilson

On October 4, 2013, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court order requiring California prison officials to disseminate and implement a previously-negotiated County Jail Plan for disabled prisoners and parolees.

As previously reported in PLN, in Armstrong v. Schwarzenegger, 622 F.3d 1058 (9th Cir. 2010), the Ninth Circuit held that prison officials may not “shirk their obligations” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Rehabilitation Act by housing state prisoners in county facilities and then claiming no responsibility for their treatment.

“Defendants have the responsibility of ensuring that their prisoners are afforded their rights under the ADA, regardless of where the State incarcerates them,” the appellate court concluded. [See: PLN,Aug. 2012, p.34;Nov. 2011, p.28].

On October 1, 2011, the California legislature adopted California Penal Code § 3056 as part of a “realignment” plan designed to ameliorate prison overcrowding. [See: PLN, June 2014, p.1]. The defendants in Armstrong then argued before the district court that § 3056 absolved them of their responsibility for state prisoners confined in county jails. The court rejected that argument in two separate orders.

The district court then ordered renewed “negotiations and the eventual dissemination to the counties of a compliance plan providing for, among other things, the tracking and monitoring of Armstrong class members housed in county jails.”

The parties eventually negotiated a revised County Jail Plan, but the defendants “refused to disseminate or implement the Plan” after Governor Jerry Brown signed amendments to § 3056 into law on June 27, 2012. The amendments specified that while housed in county jails, state prisoners “shall be under the sole legal custody and jurisdiction of local county facilities.”

The following month the district court again ordered the defendants to disseminate and implement the County Jail Plan. Instead they appealed the court’s order, renewing their argument that § 3056 “absolves them of any responsibility for Armstrong class members during the time in which they are housed in county jails.”

The Ninth Circuit affirmed. “Since 1994, disabled state prisoners and parolees have been engaged in a seemingly never-ending struggle with California state officials over whether defendants must provide disability accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (‘ADA’) and the Rehabilitation Act,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “Notwithstanding a series of careful district court orders dating back to 1996 and an opinion by this Court affirming the issuance of a permanent injunction, defendants have resisted complying with their federal obligations at every turn. These appeals provide no exception.”

The appellate court held that “the state cannot house persons for whom it is responsible in jails where the state reasonably expects indignities and violations of federal law will continue to occur, turn care over to county custodians, and then disown all responsibility for their welfare.” As such, the Court of Appeals found the § 3056 amendments “do not relieve defendants of all responsibility for the discrimination suffered by Armstrong class members housed in county jails, past and present, or of their obligation to assist in preventing further violations.”

The Court noted that the ADA and Rehabilitation Act violations in county jails were “systemwide and extensive,” and involved “the widespread denial of mobility-assistance devices to persons unable to physically function without them, the denial of hearing devices to deaf class members, and the denial of accessibility devices, such as tapping canes, to blind class members. These denials forced disabled class members into the vulnerable position of being dependent on other inmates to enable them to obtain basic services, such as meals, mail, showers, and toilets.”

The Ninth Circuit concluded that the “Defendants remain responsible for taking certain measures to ameliorate or avoid the admitted and ongoing violations of plaintiffs’ rights under the ADA and Rehabilitation Act.” California officials petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, which was denied on June 9, 2014. See: Armstrong v. Brown, 732 F.3d 955 (9th Cir. 2013), cert. denied.


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Related legal case

Armstrong v. Brown