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California: Settlement in Race-based Prison Lockdown Suit; $2.375 Million in Fees and Costs

On July 21, 2014, a California federal judge approved class-action status in a lawsuit filed by state prisoners challenging the statewide practice of race-based prison lockdowns. U.S. District Court Judge Troy L. Nunley of the Eastern District of California also appointed two law firms to represent the class. A final settlement in the case was approved in October 2015.

Robert Mitchell, a Hispanic prisoner incarcerated at the High Desert State Prison, filed suit in 2008 claiming he had been subjected to a series of race-based lockdowns starting in 2006. In his original complaint, Mitchell alleged it was the policy of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) that “when there is an incident involving any race, all inmates of that race are locked up.” [See: PLN, March 2012, p.32].

Mitchell said he had been repeatedly subjected to race-based lockdowns – one lasting 18 months. He further asserted that the CDCR’s policy improperly used ethnic groups as a means of classification when segregating prisoners, which violated his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The policy also violated his rights to equal protection and due process, he argued.

Once filed, the case bounced from one judge to another until it finally landed in the lap of Judge Nunley. Along the way, Mitchell was appointed an attorney who filed an amended complaint that pared down the lawsuit to focus on issues common among the class members; i.e., the race-based lockdowns.

On March 5, 2013, Mitchell, now represented by two law firms – the Prison Law Office and Bingham McCutcheon LLP – filed motions for class certification and a preliminary injunction. The CDCR subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment.

Ruling first on the CDCR’s motion, Judge Nunley held it was undisputed that state prison officials used race in their policies governing lockdowns, finding “any assertion denying the existence of the policy [by CDCR] to be insincere at the very least.” The court found the CDCR assigned all prisoners to one of four racial groups: black, white, Hispanic or other. Prisoners were then subject to lockdowns according to the racial group to which they were assigned when there was trouble with members of that group.

The district court dismissed several claims in Mitchell’s suit, and dismissed numerous defendants who were entitled to qualified immunity. The CDCR’s motion for summary judgment was denied in all other respects.

Turning to the class certification issue on the remaining claims that race-based lockdowns violated the Fourteenth Amendment, Judge Nunley found that because Mitchell had met the “rigorous” standards of Fed.R.Civ.Proc. 23, the case should be certified as a class-action. Under Rule 23, a proposed class must meet four criteria in order to be certified: numerosity, commonality, typicality and adequacy of representation.

Numerosity was easily satisfied, Nunley said, noting that California has “in the ball park of 125,000 male prisoners.” In addition, since all CDCR prisoners are assigned to one of the four racial groups, commonality was also met. And because implementation of the CDCR’s race-based lockdown policy was “not unique to any” one prisoner, the typicality requirement also had been satisfied. Finally, turning to adequacy of representation, the court observed that the Prison Law Office and Bingham McCutcheon had “been diligent” in representing the plaintiffs, and had “previous experience with both prisoner litigation and class actions.”

Therefore, the district court found the class members would be adequately represented, certified the lawsuit as a class-action and appointed the Prison Law Office and Bingham McCutcheon as class counsel.

On May 5, 2015 the court granted preliminary approval to a stipulated settlement that prohibits the CDCR from implementing race-based modified programs or lockdowns. Among other provisions, the settlement specifies that “Lockdowns or modified programs may be: (a) imposed on all inmates, and lifted from all inmates, in the affected area; or (b) imposed and lifted from inmates in the affected area based on individualized threat assessments; but (c) may not be imposed or lifted based on race or ethnicity.” Further, if a lockdown or modified program lasts more than 14 days, the warden “must initiate a plan to provide outdoor activity to the affected inmates.” The court will retain jurisdiction over the case during an 18-month monitoring period to ensure compliance with the settlement, which also includes requirements for staff training. The settlement agreement did not include monetary damages.

On October 8, 2015, the district court granted final approval of the settlement in the class-action case, and also awarded $2.375 million in attorneys’ fees and costs. See: Mitchell v. Felker, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:08-cv-01196-TLN-EFB.

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Related legal case

Mitchell v. Felker