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Sara Mayeux

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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: Read the rest of this entry »

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