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Oregon Supreme Court Holds Corizon Health and Other Jail Contractors Liable Under State Disability Rights Laws

by Mark Wilson

On June 3, 2022, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that private companies providing services in jails and prisons are liable under state disability rights laws — even though jails and prisons themselves are not liable.

In October 2015, Andrew Abraham was arrested and confined in Clackamas County Jail, where healthcare and mental health care was contracted to Corizon Health, Inc. Recently renamed YesCare, it is a private firm with a troubling history. [See, for example: PLN, Mar. 2022, p.52; Nov. 2021, p.32; Apr. 2020, p.36.]

Abraham, who is profoundly deaf, communicates through American Sign Language (ASL). At his intake into the jail, a guard attempting to communicate without an ASL interpreter incorrectly flagged Abraham as a suicide risk. He was placed on suicide watch. Corizon Health/YesCare was responsible for his treatment and further assessment, but it had no ASL interpreter available, either. So staff failed to discover that Abraham was diabetic. For the next three days, until he was finally released, he was denied meals and insulin.

With the aid of attorneys John D. Burgess, Carl L. Post and Daniel J. Snyder of the latter’s eponymous Portland firm, Abraham filed suit in federal court for the District of Oregon on behalf of himself and a putative class of deaf detainees. Among other claims, he accused Corizon Health/YesCare of discriminating against him on the basis of his disability, in violation of state and federal disability rights laws. He initially sought only equitable relief.

The district court dismissed the claim as moot because Abraham was no longer incarcerated. It also refused to let him amend the complaint with a compensatory damages claim; that would be futile because Oregon disability rights laws apply only to a “place of public accommodation,” which did not include a jail, the court reasoned. Abraham turned to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

But that court noted that “Oregon courts have yet to address whether a private contractor like Corizon constitutes a ‘place of public accommodation.’” So it certified the question to the Oregon Supreme Court on January 28, 2021. See: Abraham v. Corizon Health, Inc., 985 F.3d 1198 (9th Cir. 2021).

After accepting the question on March 4, 2021, that Court concluded in its June 2022 ruling that “a private contractor providing health care services at a county jail is a ‘place of public accommodation’ within the meaning of ORS 659A.400 and can be subject to liability.”

The Court said the question presented “several distinct, though related, issues of statutory construction.” First, was Abraham a “customer” or “patron” of Corizon’s services, within the meaning of the statute? Yes, the Court said, rejecting Corizon’s argument “that ‘an involuntarily detained inmate in a jail is not a ‘customer’ or ‘patron’ of jail services.’”

“We do not need to decide, in this case, whether plaintiff would qualify as a customer or patron of the Clackamas County Jail,” the Court explained. “Defendant is not the jail; rather, it is a separate entity that provides a set of services to people in the jail’s custody.”

The Court then determined that Corizon Health/YesCare “qualifies as a ‘place of public accommodation,’ as that term is defined in ORS 659A.400.” Noting there were really two distinct questions, the Court said first that the firm’s operations in the jail meet the statutory definition of a public accommodation.

“Because the people imprisoned in the Clackamas County Jail have not lost their rights under Oregon’s antidiscrimination laws,” the Court said, “it would make little sense to discount them from our understanding of the term ‘public’ as that word is used in ORS 659A.400(1)(a).”

In addition, Corizon Health/YesCare does not fall within an exception that the statute allows for a “local correctional facility” because it “does not meet the statutory definition,” the Court added. “Defendant is not a ‘jail or prison’ and, even if it were, it is not ‘provided, maintained and operated by a county or city.’” So the statutory exclusion “does not extend to private commercial entities that provide services at a local correctional facility,” the Court concluded. See: Abraham v. Corizon Health, Inc., 369 Ore. 735 (2022).

The case has now returned to the Ninth Circuit, where oral arguments are scheduled for December 2022. PLN will then update developments as they are available. See: Abraham v. Corizon Health, Inc., USCA (9th Cir.), Case No. 19-36077. 

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Related legal cases

Abraham v. Corizon Health, Inc.

Abraham v. Corizon Health, Inc.

Abraham v. Corizon Health, Inc.