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$3.7 Million in Attorney Fees Paid to Settle COVID-19 Class-Action at Orange County Jail

by Jacob Barrett

On September 12, 2022, the federal court for the Central District of California granted final approval to a class-action settlement resolving claims against California’s Orange County Jail (OCJ) over its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The legal saga began in California Superior Court for Orange County, where prisoners represented by attorneys from the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) were granted an order on December 11, 2020, requiring Sheriff Don Barnes to reduce the detainee population of 5,000 by 50%.

Barnes appealed, backed by 20 Orange County cities and local prosecutors who ranted about the risk released detainees posed to the public. But the Fourth District Court of Appeals denied the appeal on January 19, 2021. Less than a month later, however, after OCJ had released about 1,500 detainees, the Superior Court let Barnes off the hook for any further reductions. See: Campbell v. Barnes, Cal. Super. (Cty. of Orange), Case No. 30-2020-0114111.

Meanwhile, in a separate suit filed in federal court for the Central District of California, a preliminary injunction was granted on May 26, 2020, requiring the Sheriff to enforce protocols to minimize the risks of COVID-19. See: Ahlman v. Barnes, 445 F. Supp. 3d 671 (C.D. Cal. 2020). Barnes appealed that decision, trying and failing three times to obtain an emergency stay from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court. See: Ahlman v. Barnes, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 18677 (9th Cir.); 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 20801 (9th Cir.); and 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 20300 (9th Cir.).

Eventually, on August 5, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the stay that Barnes and OCJ sought. See: Barnes v. Ahlman, 140 S. Ct. 2620 (2020). The case proceeded toward trial at the district court, dragging Barnes along reluctantly; he lost a motion for a protective order to prevent his deposition by opposing counsel in March 2021 and another to dismiss the case in September of that same year. See: Ahlman v. Barnes, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 80975 (C.D. Cal.); and 2021 U.S Dist. Lexis 177808 (C.D. Cal.).

Also in September 2021, the Ninth Circuit finally heard Barnes’ appeal to the district court’s preliminary injunction. But when its decision was reached three months later on December 10, 2021, the Court said the issue was moot; since the injunction was never made permanent, it expired after 90 days, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. See: Ahlman v. Barnes, 20 F.4th 489 (9th Cir. 2021).

A request for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal to that decision was denied on May 31, 2022. See: Barnes v. Ahlman, 142 S. Ct. 2755 (2022). That same month, after more than two years of court fights — most of which he lost — the Sheriff agreed to settle both cases.

The settlement obligates OCJ to: (1) follow COVID-19 guidance for jails issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the California Department of Public Health; (2) provide prisoners with adequate medical treatment for the disease, including free testing and vaccines, therapeutic antiviral medication, and transfers to outside medical providers as necessary; (3) conduct COVID-19 education; and (4) give prisoners a $5 incentive for accepting vaccinations.

The district court granted the agreement preliminary approval on July 7, 2022, also certifying a class of affected OCJ prisoners and detainees. The court appointed class counsel from Covington & Burling, LLP; Schronbrun, Seplow, Harris, Hoffman & Zeldes, LLP; the ACLU Foundation; and the ACLU Foundation of Southern California. For them and Munger, Tolles & Olsen, LLP, the agreement provided more $3.7 million in fees and costs, including $2,974,082.00 in fees and $10,989.61 in costs for plaintiffs’ attorneys in the Campbell case, with the remaining $714,928.39 in fees and costs going to plaintiffs’ attorneys in the federal matter. Final approval then followed. See: Alhman v. Barnes, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 211097 (C.D. Cal.)..

Additional sources: Orange County Register, LAist, Voice of OC

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