Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Ninth Circuit: California Can’t Get Out of Obligations to Disabled State Prisoners By Housing Them in County Jails

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In the latest ruling in the ongoing Armstrong litigation over the rights of disabled California prisoners and parolees, a Ninth Circuit panel ruled last week that California has the same obligations to those it holds under contract in county jails as it does to those in state prisons. Calling the state’s arguments to the contrary “barely colorable, constituting attacks on manifestly valid regulations,” Judge Reinhardt’s opinion noted that “even in the absence of a regulation explicitly saying so, a State cannot avoid its obligations under federal law by contracting with a third party to perform its functions.” The opinion opens:

More than a decade and a half ago, disabled prisoners and parolees brought this action against the California officials with responsibility over the corrections system and parole proceedings. They sought accommodations to their disabilities that are required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Constitution. Defendants denied that they had any obligation to provide such accommodations, forcing plaintiffs to undertake years of litigation. Plaintiffs prevailed repeatedly in the district court and in this court. For most of the last decade, the litigation has been in a remedial phase.

Now, however, defendants are again denying any obligation to accommodate a set of disabled prisoners and parolees held under California’s authority. Defendants house significant numbers of prisoners and parolees in jails operated by California’s fifty-eight counties. Defendants contend that they have no responsibility for ensuring that any disabled prisoners and parolees that they so house receive accommodations. … That argument, and defendants’ other arguments contesting their obligations to their prisoners and parolees housed in county jails, are without merit. Accordingly, we affirm the portion of the district court’s decision that holds that defendants are responsible for providing reasonable accommodations to the disabled prisoners and parolees that they house in county jails.

However, the ruling was not a pure victory for the plaintiffs. The panel also found that there was insufficient evidence to support the district court’s sweeping remedial order, and remanded back to the district court for a fuller evidentiary hearing, though in a paragraph carefully spelling out for the plaintiffs what they need to do next:

[W]e conclude that the district court abused its discretion by granting system-wide relief on the basis of the sparse evidence on which it based its order, and remand to allow it to take such additional evidence as may be necessary concerning the nature and extent of the violations of class members’ rights taking place in the county jails. We note, however, that the burden facing plaintiffs, while formidable, is far from insurmountable. As we stated above, it is a close question as to whether the evidence currently in the record is sufficient to sustain the current order. It is undisputed that the State houses many class members in the county jails, and that it has no adequate system for tracking and accommodating those class members. As we have previously observed, “[b]ecause the regulations implementing the ADA require a public entity to accommodate individuals it has identified as disabled . . . some form of tracking system is necessary in order to enable [defendants] to comply with the Act.” Armstrong, 275 F.3d at 876. This system-wide deficiency took plaintiffs much of the way towards a showing sufficient to justify the system-wide relief ordered by the district court, but it was not enough in itself, or in tandem with the minimal evidence of violations that was adduced, to justify the scope of the relief that was ordered. Nonetheless, in light of the State’s failure to track many of the class members that it houses in the county jails, not much more evidence than that already provided may be required to approve the current order. At the same time, we might observe that, in this case as in others, too much evidence would certainly be preferable to too little.

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