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Ninth Circuit Keeps the Heat on California Prisons for Continuing ADA and RA Violations

One could almost excuse the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) officials if they felt that the federal courts have them under special scrutiny, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has again made it clear that they have only themselves to blame. After yet more embarrassing revelations about continued human rights violations in their prisons and a U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating the reduction of prison overcrowding, the CDOC has again been cited for failing to comply with a long-standing class-action consent decree addressing violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act (RA).

The 1994 lawsuit was settled by the CDOC agreeing to an injunction to properly accommodate California prisons subject to ADA and RA protections, and court supervision of that injunction has continue to monitor CDOC compliance with its terms and conditions. Under that initial agreement, “the State produced a remedial plan intended to ensure that disabled inmates had access to programs and facilities in California’s prison,” according to the 9th Circuit’s recent opinion. This plan was incorporated into a permanent injunction that went into effect in 2001.

In 2007, however, representatives of the plaintiffs’ class again alleged that California had failed to comply with that agreement, and yet another injunction was issued, which provided in part, “Within 120 days ... defendants ... shall develop a system for holding wardens and prison medical administrators accountable for compliance ... to track the record of each institution ... and staff members who are not in compliance with these requirements.”

California then issued a new memorandum “outlining tracking, investigation, and reporting protocols,” to resolve the plaintiffs’ complaints, known as the “2008 Memorandum.” However, in 2012, the Plaintiffs sought to have a contempt order entered for CDOC’s alleged failures to follow the terms of this memorandum. The district court agreed that the state had not fully complied but declined to hold it in contempt, instead modifying the injunction to obligate the state to “track all allegations of non-compliance with the (remedial plan) and the others of this Court.” California appealed that decision.

The state argued that the modified injunction was issued without notice, that it violated the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), that it was unsupported by the evidence, that the district court lacked jurisdiction to make such modifications, and that it violated the labor agreements between the state and its prison employees. The 9th Circuit agreed only with the argument that the district court’s order had exceeded its authority, specifically addressing the expansive role given to a Rule 706 expert. Citing its decision in A & M Records v. Napster, the appeals court held that a technical adviser should never be permitted to “displace the district court’s judicial role,” and remanded the matter to district court to modify its decision to reflect the Napster holding.

The September 26, 2014 9th Circuit ruling returns the litigation to district court, where CDOC will again be forced to deal with the dysfunctional state prison system that continues to have difficulty following the edicts of the judicial system that it purports to serve, and for its continued failure to protect and serve the most vulnerable residents of its correction institutions. See: Armstrong v Brown, 768 F.3d 975 (9th Cir. 2014).

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Related legal case

Armstrong v Brown