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Final Settlement Agreement Approved in COVID-19 Class Action at California Immigration Detention Center

by Matt Clarke

On June 10, 2022, a final settlement agreement was approved in a federal class-action lawsuit challenging the safety from COVID-19 of detainees held for federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in California’s Yuba County Jail (YCJ) and Mesa Verde Detention Center (MVDC). The settlement will protect around 250 class members already released from being detained again for a period of three years, with exceptions for those who commit crimes or abscond. It also requires YCJ and MVDC, which is privately operated by Florida-based GEO Group, to continue pandemic-abatement measures for three years.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court for the Northern District of California on April 20, 2020, as the pandemic spread and it became clear that conditions at ICE detention centers facilitated the spread of COVID-19. The class certified by the Court is defined as “all people who are or have been in ICE custody at [YCJ or MVDC] from April 20, 2020,” through three years after final court approval of the settlement agreement, now fixed at June 10, 2025.

“Class members had no ability to social distance,” the complaint alleged. “They slept on bunk beds in crowded dorms, shared limited bathroom space, and ate meals communally, often elbow-to-elbow.” A lack of regular COVID-19 testing, and inadequate screening also put the uninfected population at risk from infected staff and newly arrived detainees.

In addition to ICE and GEO Group, the lawsuit’s named defendants included Acting San Francisco ICE Field Office Director David Jennings, who has since retired, and MVDC Warden Nathan Allen. The Court issued a series of preliminary injunctions that allowed class members to apply for release on bail, as well as requiring defendants to implement COVID-19 mitigation protocols, including mandated screening, testing, and population caps. The parties entered into settlement negotiations after Defendants appealed the preliminary injunctions, with assistance from the Ninth Circuit Mediator. Following months of negotiations, the agreement was reached in December 2021, which then resulted in the dismissal of the appeal and the lawsuit.

The settlement requires Defendants to maintain existing Court-ordered COVID-19 mitigation protocols for at least 60 days after approval of the agreement and thereafter to follow the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as well as providing for vaccination, testing, appropriate isolation and quarantine of staff and class members to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Class members must be provided with proper supplies—including masks and sanitizer—and adequate space for distancing, and a released class member may not be re-detained except under certain specified circumstances, such as violation of a material condition of release, arrest for a crime or a final, unappealable deportation order.

The parties also agreed that Defendants would pay $4 million in fees, plus $56,033.58 in taxable costs, to attorneys representing the Class: William Freeman, Sean Riordan, Angélica Salceda, and Emilou MacLean of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California; Stephanie Padilla of the ACLU of Southern California; Bree Bernwanger of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area; Francisco Ugarte, Jennifer Friedman, Kelly Engel Wells and Genna Ellis Beier of the Office of the Public Defender of San Francisco; Martin S. Schenker, Timothy W. Cook, Francisco Unger, and Julie Veroff of Cooley LLP in San Francisco; and Judah Lakin and Amalia Wille of Larkin & Wille in Oakland. See: Rivas v. Jennings, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 3:20-cv-02731.  

Additional source: Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights

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Related legal case

Rivas v. Jennings