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Ninth Circuit Affirms Expanded Relief for Disabled California Prisoners in Long-Running Class Action

by David M. Reutter

On February 2, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed, in large part, an order that found ongoing violations of the rights of disabled prisoners at California’s R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility (RJD) and five additional state prisons, all resulting from the failure to adequately investigate and discipline staff misconduct by the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

The opinion was issued in a class-action lawsuit that was filed in 1994, alleging widespread violations of the American with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. ch. 126, § 12101, et seq., and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq.

In 2018, auditors from CDCR and Class Counsel attorneys conducted a compliance review of disability policies at RJD. The resulting memo documented prisoner reports that “staff members forcefully remov[ed] some [Class] members from wheelchairs” and “assault[ed] inmates [who] were already secured with restraint equipment.”

A state “strike team” was sent to RJD to investigate the reports. It found 48 of the 102 prisoners interviewed “provided specific, actionable information, relevant to the foundational concerns” of staff misconduct that prompted the review.

The strike team recommended, among other things, installing surveillance cameras at certain locations within RJD, increasing the presence of supervisorial staff and providing additional mandatory staff training. Class Counsel spent 2019 communicating with CDCR to remedy the problems at RJD. In February 2020, Counsel filed a motion asking the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California to impose further remedial measures at RJD. The motion included 87 declarations from 66 prisoners and two expert reports that criticized RJD staff treatment of disabled prisoners, as well as the failure of CDCR to investigate and discipline staff in response. The district court granted the motion.

While the motion was pending, the Class moved for similar relief at the other five prisons. That motion incorporated the material in the RJD motion and two new expert reports and declarations from 75 additional prisoners. The district court found staff had denied ADA accommodations to prisoners at the five prisons amid a “culture that condones abuse and retaliation against disabled inmates.”

The district court ordered Defendants, among other things, to submit plans to install fixed cameras and body-worn cameras; reform the staff complaint, investigative and discipline processes; increase supervisory staffing; provide more staff training; implement anti-retaliation mechanisms; and reform pepper spray policies.

Defendants appealed. The Ninth Circuit began its analysis by finding that the staff misconduct order was related to the claims in the original complaint. It pointed to an example in the RJD order in which the district court recounted an incident where a guard punched a deaf prisoner in the face because he requested the guard communicate with him in writing.

“Refusing to communicate in writing with a deaf inmate and beating a deaf inmate who requests such a method of communication are both denials of reasonable accommodation,” wrote the Ninth Circuit. “That the allegations raised in Plaintiffs’ recent motions described violent denials of accommodations makes injunctive relief all the more supportive.”

The Court found relief was necessary, since “[w]itnessing retaliation against any disabled inmate . . . may accordingly deter class members from speaking up, contributing to [a] vicious cycle” that makess prisoners think twice before requesting accommodations. Additionally, the district court’s more intrusive order was permissible since it was “confronting noncompliance with its prior, less intrusive, orders.”

The district court’s order required the five prisons to “more effectively monitor and control the use of pepper spray” by staff and to “significantly increase supervisory staff by posting additional sergeants” on prison watches. But the Ninth Circuit found relief was not supported by the record as to those prisons. The district court’s order was affirmed in all other respects, however.

Plaintiffs were represented by Class Counsel from Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP in San Francisco, as well as attorneys from the Prison Law Office and the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund Inc., both in Berkeley, plus Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP in San Francisco. See: Armstrong v. Newsom, 58 F.4th 1283 (9th Cir. 2023).