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Ninth Circuit Affirms Class Action Consent Decree at California’s Alameda County Jail

by David M. Reutter

On October 6, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a consent decree in a class-action lawsuit filed over solitary confinement of mentally ill detainees at the Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, California.

As PLN reported, the suit accused jailers of subjecting “individuals with mental health diagnoses and/or other psychiatric disabilities” to “cruel and unusual use of isolation” as well as failing to respect their due-process rights by failing to provide “adequate mental health care” and “reasonable accommodations” to those with mental disabilities. In the 104-page Consent Decree approved in February 2022 by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, the county Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) agreed to revamp mental health care at the jail, changing related policies and procedures and hiring new staff, as well as agreeing to build a new “therapeutic housing unit” and put in place new oversight structures. Attorneys providing class counsel from Rosen Bien Galvan and Grunfeld in San Francisco were awarded over $2,185,000 in costs and fees. [See: PLN, May 2022, p.22.]

Objectors to the Agreement—especially the award for attorney costs and fees—appealed to the Ninth Circuit. But the Court found no error by the district court in its determination that the Consent Decree settlement was “fair, reasonable, and adequate” under Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(e)(2). Nor did the Court find the district court abused its discretion in responding to the objections. Its judgment was therefore affirmed.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Danielle J. Forrest disagreed that the district court did not err by failing to conduct the analysis set out in In re Bluetooth Headset Products Liability Litigation, 654 F.3d 935 (9th Cir. 2011). The judge pointed out that the Rule 23 analysis requires consideration of several factors, including “the strength of the plaintiff’s case” and the risks of proceeding with litigation, as well as the stage of the proceedings and the amount of—and plaintiffs’ reaction to—the settlement offer. As she noted, the Court in Hanlin v. Chrysler Corp., 150 F.3d 1011 (9th Cir. 1998), also pointed out attorney’s fees as a factor.

The Bluetooth court addressed the “inherent risk . . . that class counsel may collude with the defendants,” Forrest noted; when a settlement is reached before class certification—as in this case—it must “withstand an even greater level of scrutiny.” Under that ruling then, a district court must look for warning signs of collusion: (1) class counsel receiving disproportionate benefit from the settlement relative to the class; (2) a “clear-sailing” agreement that “provid[es] for the payment of attorney’s fees separate and apart from class funds; and (3) agreements under which awarded fees “revert to [the] defendants rather than [being] added to the class funds.” Following a 2018 amendment to Rule 23 that now lists four factors to consider the substantive fairness of class settlements, the Court expanded Bluetooth to require a review of the warning signs of collusion between class counsel and defendants when reviewing all class settlements.

Here the district court failed to discuss or reference the Bluetooth warning signs, Judge Forrest noted. This was “particularly telling because the parties had a clear-sailing agreement,” she said; she would have reversed the decision and remanded the case for a thorough analysis. See: Babu v. Wilkins, 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 26616 (9th Cir.).  

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Related legal case

Babu v. Wilkins