In October 2004, two former prisoners of the Los Angeles County Jail filed a class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the California Department of Corrections and Los Angeles County. The plaintiffs claimed that they had been forced to sleep on the floor of their cells during their detentions. They claimed that this violated their constitutional rights by subjecting them to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. In addition, one of the named plaintniffs claimed that his rights were violated when he was over-detained for two days following his ordered release date.
The defendants asked the district court to dismiss the complaint, alleging that the plaintiffs had not exhausted their administrative remedies, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). On March 23, 2005, the district court (Judge Dean D. Pregerson) denied the motion to dismiss, finding that the plaintiffs were not covered under the PLRA exhaustion provision because it only applied to “prisoners,” while the plaintiffs in this case were former prisoners, not current prisoners. Thomas v. Baca, No. 04-8448, 2005 WL 697986 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 23, 2005).
The plaintiffs asked the District Court to certify plaintiff classes, and on April 7, 2005, Judge Pregerson initially denied the motion without prejudice, finding that the plaintiffs had erred by failing to send notice of the motion to all parties being sued. Thomas v. Baca, No. 04-8448, 2005 WL 820265 (C.D. Cal. Apr. 7, 2005).
The six Los Angeles County Supervisors who were being sued in this lawsuit asked the District Court to dismiss them as defendants, and on May 2, 2005, Judge Pregerson held that the plaintiffs could not sue these defendants for inadequately funding the jails because the funding decisions made by these defendants were protected by absolute legislative immunity. The Court then agreed to dismiss a former supervisor (who had not worked as a county supervisor since 1996) as a defendant, but otherwise denied the motion to dismiss. Thomas v. Baca, No. 04-8448, 2005 WL 1030247 (C.D. Cal. May 2, 2005).
On May 17, 2005, Judge Pregerson certified a plaintiff class of “individuals who, while in LASD custody, were required to sleep on the floor of a LASD facility with or without bedding.” Thomas v. Baca, 231 F.R.D. 397 (C.D. Cal. 2005). The Court ordered the defendants to keep records of every time an inmate was required to sleep on the floor. In October 2005, those reports ceased and the Sheriff asserted that all floor-sleeping in the jail had ceased.
The plaintiff’s counsel claimed that between October 2005 and October 2006, he received hundreds of communications from detainees asserting that they had slept on the floor in the jail after all floor-sleeping had supposedly stopped. The defendants maintained that no inmates had slept on the floor unreported, and they agreed to investigate the matter further to ensure that this was the case. On November 1, 2006, before the defendants could fully investigate, plaintiffs filed a RICO complaint claiming that the Sheriff had engaged in a ruse to avoid reporting floor sleeping by causing the floor sleeping to occur not in the residential portion of the jail, but rather in the Inmate Reception Center (IRC), which is the central processing facility for inmates at the jail. This new complaint alleges that the defendants benefitted monetarily from “a pattern of racketeering activity of the LASD” and that these racketeering activities “included a continuous pattern and practice involving…attempted murder, murder, assaultive conduct, kidnapping, extortion, fraud, mail fraud, deceit, dealing in controlled substances, and obstruction of justice in federal proceedings.” The complaint also threatened to name the defense counsel as defendants if they uncovered any evidence that the defense counsel had participated in any of the misconduct alleged in the complaint.
In response to this new complaint, defendant Sheriff Leroy Baca and his counsel asked the District Court to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim and for sanctions against the plaintiff’s counsel for bad faith misconduct directed at opposing counsel. On February 28, 2007, Judge Pregerson granted the motion to dismiss the complaint and ordered plaintiffs' counsel to pay $5000 in sanctions for recklessly escalating a discovery dispute into a separate RICO lawsuit in which he associated named defense counsel and their firm with egregious criminal conduct. The Court found this conduct to be frivolous and improper, with the sole purpose of harassing and bullying his opponents. Thomas v. Baca, No. 06-6981, 2007 WL 738545 (C.D. Cal. Feb. 28, 2007).
The plaintiff class then asked the court for summary judgment on three claims: 1) that there was a custom in the LA County Jail system of requiring inmates to sleep overnight on the floor because there were insufficient available bunks, 2) that the custom was unconstitutional, and 3) that Sheriff Baca was legally responsible for that custom. Sheriff Baca argued in return that he was entitled to summary judgment because 1) the conditions of confinement did not give rise to a constitutional violation, and 2) he was entitled to qualified immunity in his individual capacity.
On September 21, 2007, Judge Pregerson found that Sheriff Baca was entitled to qualified immunity and granted him summary judgment on that issue in his individual capacity. However, the Court also found that there was a custom in the LA County Jails of requiring inmates to sleep on the floor, and that this violated their constitutional rights, even if they were allowed a mattress. Specifically, the Court stated that “prisons may not deprive [inmates] of a basic place to sleep – a bed; for, like wearing clothing, sleeping in a bed identifies our common humanity….quite simply, that a custom of leaving inmates nowhere to sleep but the floor constitutes cruel and unusual punishment is nothing short of self-evident.” Thomas v. Baca, 518 F. Supp.2d 1201 (C.D. Cal. 2007).
On January 8, 2008, the Court granted the defendant's application for certification of an interlocutory appeal of the 9/21/07 order.
On December 27, 2007, the Court allowed the ACLU of Southern California (ACLU) to enter the case as an interested party. On June 8, 2008, the plaintiff's counsel agreed to include the ACLU counsel as co-counsel to represent the class interests. On April 23, 2009, the Court granted the ACLU's motion to withdraw as counsel except as to appellate matters.
From May 2009 to March 2011, the parties held a series of settlement conferences that were ultimately unsuccessful.
On March 22, 2012, the Court decertified the damages class, citing concerns over identification and notification of class members, the individualized questions of proof as to damages, and the viability of distributing any damage award excess.
On May 30, 2012, the Court accepted the parties' stipulation that the case be continued pending the plaintiff's petition for permission to appeal the class decertification order. On June 15, 2012, the Ninth Circuit granted the plaintiff's urgent motion to expedite their petition. The case was ongoing at the time of writing.
At the time of this writing, the case is ongoing.Timothy Shoffner - 08/02/2012