Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Page 3


Ninth Circuit Says Orange County Violating Disabled Inmates’ Rights


By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer


Orange County’s jails are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and related state law requirements because of physical barriers that deny inmates access to certain facilities and because of the disparities between programs and services offered to disabled and non-disabled inmates, the Ninth Circuit held yesterday.

Partially reversing a denial of injunctive relief by U.S. District Judge Gary Taylor of the Central District of California, who has since retired, the court held neither the fact that Orange County might move toward compliance nor Taylor’s belief that the county would do so eventually constituted a proper basis for denying the plaintiffs relief.

Fred Pierce, Timothy Lee Conn, Fermin Valenzuela, and Laurie D. Ellerston filed suit against the county on behalf of themselves and other mobility- and dexterity-impaired pretrial detainees, claiming that the county had prevented them from accessing various features and elements of their cells and common spaces, and that they were segregated and denied access to a variety of the county’s educational, rehabilitative, and recreation programs, services, and activities for pretrial detainees.

Exclusion Prohibited

Pursuant to the ADA, a “qualified individual with a disability” cannot, “by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.” The ADA further provides that such an individual also must not be “excluded from or denied the benefits of a public entity’s services, programs, or activities because the entity’s facilities are inaccessible or unusable.”

Public entities must “make reasonable modifications”  to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability under the ADA, unless the public entity “can demonstrate that making the modifications would fundamentally alter the nature of the service, program, or activity.”

To the extent that structural changes are needed, an entity must develop a “transition plan” setting forth the steps that must be taken to complete any planned structural changes, Senior Judge Betty B. Fletcher explained. When the entity is the operator of a penal institution, inmates’ rights must be analyzed “in light of effective prison administration.”

Thus a prison can rebut an ADA plaintiff’s claims by showing that the requested accommodation would undermine the facility’s legitimate interests in “maintaining security and order” and “operating [an] institution in a manageable fashion” Fletcher wrote.

Plaintiffs introduced evidence that several of features, “including toilets, sinks, showers, hot water dispensers, telephones, and water fountains” in cells or common spaces did not comply with federal accessibility standards.  For example, the court noted, the men’s rooftop exercise area the bathroom could only be reached via a narrow doorway and stairs. Conn, one of the named plaintiffs, also testified that he was forced to rely on other inmates for assistance when confronted with inaccessible facilities.

Despite finding that the county was not “in full ADA compliance,” Taylor declined  to declare an ADA or California Civil Code violation, or order injunctive relief.  Although Taylor acknowledged the “existence of barriers,” he concluded that the plaintiffs were not entitled to relief because they had not shown that “effective modifications could be made,” or that “where an architectural shortcoming existed, it was not made accessible by other appropriate action taken by a jail employee.”

‘Unwarranted’ Conclusion

Taylor’s conclusion that the county would “move toward full compliance” was “unwarranted” Fletcher wrote, “given the County’s track record.” Even though the county had adopted a transition plan for several structural changes in 2000, the plan “failed to address many architectural barriers in common spaces used by disabled detainees,” Fletcher said.

She also noted that the plan was adopted eight years after the regulatory deadline for such plans, and over five years after the regulations’ deadline for the completion of the modifications.

Fletcher criticized Taylor’s findings as “unsupported by and contrary to the record.”

She continued:

“The County maintained throughout the trial that the deputies have their hands full given the ratio of deputies to inmates and the various duties incumbent upon the former. Staffing limits make it unreasonable to expect to address all structural deficiencies through deputy assistance.”

The county, she added, failed to “posit any legitimate rationale for maintaining inaccessible bathrooms, sinks, showers, and other fixtures in the housing areas and commons spaces assigned to mobility- and dexterity-impaired detainees.”

Plaintiffs also claimed that the county housed disabled inmates only at the Men’s and Women’s Central Jails, which denied them access to programs, activities, and services for which they would otherwise be eligible.

The court noted that the other facilities offered programs in agriculture, woodworking, and welding, and detainees at other facilities were given the opportunity to participate in off-site or community work projects. The court also mentioned that the other facilities had softball fields, volleyball courts, pool tables, and other facilities that the Central Jails lacked.

Security Concerns Cited

Due to security concerns related to housing mobility- and dexterity-impaired detainees with non-disabled detainees, the appellate court upheld the county’s practice of segregating disabled inmates from the general population, but reversed that the district court’s finding that disabled inmates had access to the same programs as non-disabled inmates.

“The ADA does not require perfect parity among programs offered by various facilities that are operated by the same umbrella institution,” Fletcher explained, “But an inmate cannot be categorically excluded from a beneficial prison program based on his or her disability alone.“

The ADA requires that any educational, vocational, rehabilitative or recreational programs, services or activities offered to non-disabled detainees also be available to disabled detainees who meet the eligibility requirements to participate.

Fletcher wrote:

“The County may not shunt the disabled into facilities where there is no possibility of access … to the superior services offered outside of the Central Jail Complex.” 

Because the county failed to offer any explanation or justification for the disparity between the programs offered at the Central Jail Complex and other facilities, the court found it had failed to raise a defense that its failure was reasonably related to a legitimate government objective.

“We conclude that the district court erred when it concluded that disabled inmates had access to ‘the various inmate programs,’ and we must remand as further fact-finding is required to determine what relief is appropriate,” Fletcher wrote, and charged the district court with determining which programs were capable of reassignment to the Central Jail without being eliminated at the other facilities.

Because the plaintiffs failed to show that the inmates were treated differently from similarly situated persons, the court rejected their equal protection claim based upon the county’s ADA violations.

Further Factfinding Required

The court remanded for further factfinding to determine what relief should be granted and what prospective relief is warranted, but noted that because a significant period of time had passed since trial, the facts might have changed significantly. The court also remanded the issue of whether plaintiffs were denied adequate notice of their rights under the ADA and an appropriate grievance procedure.

The court affirmed the district court’s pre-trial and evidentiary rulings and the district court’s termination of all but two prospective injunctive orders governing prison

conditions, finding that they were longer needed to correct  current and ongoing violations of a Federal right. But the court held that the injunctive orders were still required to guarantee access to religious services and exercise for detainees’ in administrative segregation. The court also reversed the district court’s dismissal of an individual plaintiff’s claim for damages.

Virginia Keeny, who represented the plaintiffs, called the decision “a great victory for individuals with disabilities.

“The Ninth Circuit decision that Orange County is not complying with the Americans with disabilities act is a wonderful victory for prisoners and pretrial detainees,” she said. “It clearly announces that the jails need to be accessible to people with disabilities and that individuals with disabilities cannot be warehoused in inferior cells where they have no access to the types of education programs, outdoor exercise, religious services and the like available to other inmates.”

Keeny said she will be returning to court on behalf of the plaintiffs when the case is remanded to “bring the jails into compliance with the law.”

Defendants were represented by Steven C. Miller of  Santa Ana, David D. Lawrence of Glendale, and Christina Sprenger of Orange. They could not be reached for comment.

Judges M. Margaret McKeown, and Jay S. Bybee joined Fletcher in her opinion.

The case is Pierce v. County of Orange, No. 05-55845.


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