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$1.4 Million Paid by King County, Washington to Settle Juvenile Solitary Confinement Class Action

by Mark Wilson

On January 18, 2022, the federal court for the Western District of Washington approved a class-action settlement awarding 76 juvenile offenders a total of $1,357,665, or $500 a day for their solitary confinement at two adult jails in King County. The court also approved a $50,000 award for attorney’s fees and costs, for a total of $1,407,665.

The case traces back to 2017, when four juveniles sued to stop the county from holding them in solitary confinement while awaiting trial on adult charges at the Regional Justice Center in Kent, where jail officials feared the juveniles would be subjected to sexual predation by adults also held there. That led the following year to a $240,000 settlement paid by the County and another $25,000 by the Kent School District for the hours of schooling the four plaintiffs lost while held in isolation. Moreover, the County agreed to a policy change banning the use of solitary confinement for juveniles and very young adults in all but the most extreme cases. [See: PLN, Mar. 2019, p.26.]

Since the suit was settled before it could be certified as a class-action, attorneys from Columbia Legal Services filed another suit in the Court against the County on July 26, 2021, on behalf of five named Plaintiffs: Cedric Jackson, Maryanne Atkins, Torry Love, Tristan Pascua and Patrick Tables.

Atkins, one of the few girls held in solitary, spent 40 days in a row there before she turned 18. “I could hear other people screaming and shouting at all hours of the day and night, but I had no one I could actually talk with,” she said.

Tables spent six months in solitary with just three hours out of his cell every week, which he also spent alone in a dayroom or on a recreation yard. “Solitary confinement really messes with your mind,” he said, adding that he was “glad that King County won’t be able to do this to kids anymore.”

They and the other three named plaintiffs represented a proposed class of juveniles who were (1) charged as adults and (2) confined in the Maleng Regional Justice Center and/or King County Correctional Facility, where they were also (3) placed in solitary confinement (4) between 2014 and 2019.

The parties then finalized their settlement agreement, paying each juvenile in the class $500 for each day in solitary confinement. On August 6, 2021, Plaintiffs moved to certify the class under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) 23(b)(3), also seeking preliminary approval of the Settlement Agreement. Five days later, the Court granted both motions.

The Court then held a fairness hearing under FRCP 23(e)(2) on January 11, 2022, concluding the Settlement Agreement met the regulation’s requirements because “Class representatives and Class Counsel adequately represented the class” as required under FRCP 23(e)(2)(A); the agreement was “negotiated at arm’s length,” as required under FRCP 23(e)(2)(B); and “the relief provided to the class members is adequate,” as required under FRCP 23(e)(2)(C).

With respect to the last point, the Court agreed with the language of Plaintiffs’ motion that the $500 daily award “falls ‘in the middle range of compensation negotiated in other similar cases’ and is ‘much higher than some settlements . . . (yet) lower than others.’”

“This settlement involves an inherently unquantifiable harm,” the Court explained. “The settlement amount of $500 per Compensable Day provides greater compensation to those who spent more time in solitary confinement and is a reasonable approach to assigning values to the varying numbers of days that Class Members spent in solitary confinement.” Therefore, “while $500 in many ways remains an uncertain number, it is adequate and fair.”

The Court noted that “roughly half of the 76 Class Members have less than 10 Compensable Days,” meaning each one stands to collect “less than $5,000,” and “nearly one-third of the Class (25 Class Members) will receive $800 or less.” It recognized therefore that “the cost of litigating these ‘smaller’ claims piecemeal would be prohibitively expensive.”

Thus the Court concluded the agreement “is therefore ‘fair, reasonable, and adequate.’”

Turning to legal fees and costs, the Court found that whether using the “lodestar” or “percentage-of-recovery” methods, Class Counsel likely would be entitled to fees and costs ranging from $301,250 to $339,000. But Counsel—Columbia Legal Services attorneys Nicholas B. Straley, Alison S. Bilow and Jonathan O. Nomamiukor, II—accepted just $50,000 in fees and costs, which was “far less” and quite reasonable, the Court observed.

In conclusion, the Court granted approval of the settlement and the motion for attorneys’ fees and costs, ordering King County to pay $1,357,665 to the Class and $50,000 to Class Counsel. See: Jackson v. King County, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8803 (W.D. Wash.).  

Additional source: Columbia Legal Services

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Related legal case

Jackson v. King County