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Plata v. Schwarzenegger

April 30, 2010


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of California Thelton E. Henderson, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. 3:01-cv-01351-TEH.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Canby, Circuit Judge



Argued and Submitted September 16, 2009-San Francisco, California

Before: Mary M. Schroeder, William C. Canby, Jr. and Michael Daly Hawkins, Circuit Judges.


This class action was brought by California prisoners to challenge deficiencies in prison medical care that allegedly violated the Eighth Amendment and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101-12213. The parties consented to the entry of stipulated orders providing steps to remedy the deficiencies. When the State was unable to comply with the consent orders, the court imposed a receivership on the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation ("CDCR") to administer and improve prisoner health care.

Although the State did not oppose or appeal from the appointment of the Receiver, it now seeks, after several years, to terminate the receivership on the ground that the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3626 ("PLRA" or "Act"), deprived the district court of the power to appoint a receiver in prison litigation. In addition, the State contends that the receivership was not "the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right," as the Act requires the district court to find in granting prospective relief. Id. § 3626(a)(1)(A). Finally, the State challenges the Receiver's planning for construction of additional prison facilities on the ground that the Act implicitly prohibits such planning.

We conclude that the Act does not deprive the district court of its equitable power to appoint a receiver in prison litigation. We also reject the State's challenge to the district court's finding that a receivership was the least intrusive means of remedying constitutional violations in prisoner health care. Finally, we conclude that we lack jurisdiction to review the district court's refusal to terminate the Receiver's construction plan. We accordingly affirm the portion of the district court's order that denied the State's motion to terminate the receivership, and we dismiss the appeal of the portion rejecting the challenge to the Receiver's construction planning.

I. Background

The plaintiffs brought this action on behalf of all inmates of California state prisons. The complaint alleges that the State has provided inmates with inadequate medical care in violation of the Eighth Amendment and the Americans with Disabilities Act.*fn1 In January 2002, after almost three years of informal negotiations and prior to discovery or any ruling on the part of the court, the parties entered into a "Stipulation and Order for Injunctive Relief" ("Relief Order") designed to remedy the alleged violations. The court approved the Relief Order that June.

As part of the Relief Order, the State agreed to implement specific remedial procedures to ensure the provision of constitutionally adequate medical care in prisons statewide. These measures were to be taken on a rolling basis with seven prisons implementing the procedures in 2003 and five additional prisons implementing them each year through 2008. The Relief Order provides that it shall be "binding upon, and faithfully kept, observed, performed and be enforceable by and against the parties" and empowers the district court to enforce its terms through "specific performance and all other remedies permitted by law." In accord with this authorization, the district court convened monthly status conferences, toured one of the subject prisons, enlisted experts to monitor compliance with the Relief Order, and encouraged the parties to devise a joint plan for attaining the goals of the Relief Order. The going was slow. In September 2004, after two years of little progress, the parties entered into a Stipulated Order Regarding the Quality of Patient Care and Staffing ("Care Order"), which the court promptly approved. This Care Order was meant to ensure the competency of medical staff and to establish procedures for the identification and treatment of high-risk patients.

Three years after entering into the consent decree, not a single prison had successfully implemented the remedial procedures, despite the fact that a "significant number" of inmates had died as a direct result of substandard medical care-a fact the State openly acknowledges. Reckoning that the medical delivery system was "too far gone to be corrected by conventional methods," the district court issued an order directing the State to show cause as to why it should not be held in contempt for failing to comply with prior orders and, also, why the court should not appoint a receiver to manage the delivery of constitutionally adequate medical care in state prisons.

Because the Relief Order was the product of a settlement, attained without findings of fact, the district court conducted a six-day evidentiary hearing on the order to show cause. At the hearing, the court received dozens of exhibits into evidence and took testimony from various experts and state employees. Numerous experts testified as to the "incompetence and indifference" of prison physicians and medical staff and described an "abysmal" medical delivery system where "medical care too often sinks below gross negligence to outright cruelty." Despite such damning revelations, the State let the reports and testimony of those experts go, in the words of the court, "essentially uncontested." Indeed, the State candidly admitted in its response to the order to show cause "that to date [it had] failed to attain compliance with all aspects of [prior] Court Orders."

In October 2005, after briefing by the parties and amici curiae, the district court issued its findings of fact and conclusions of law regarding the order to show cause. After cataloguing "extensive and disturbing" constitutional violations in the delivery of medical care to inmates, the court declared its intention to hold the citation for contempt in abeyance and to establish a receivership to remedy the violations. Echoing the PLRA, see 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(1)(A), the court found that the receivership and "those actions necessary to effectuate its establishment, are narrowly drawn to remedy the constitutional violations at issue, extend no further than necessary to correct a current and ongoing violation of a federal right, and are the least intrusive means necessary to correct these violations." "[I]f the system is not dramatically overhauled," the court observed, an "unconscionable degree of suffering and death is sure to continue."

In February 2006, the district court issued an order appointing a Receiver and conferring upon the Receiver all of the powers of the Secretary of the CDCR with respect to the delivery of medical care, while concurrently suspending the Secretary's exercise of the same. Notwithstanding the "un-precedented . . . scope and dimension" of the receivership, as noted by the court, the State neither objected to nor appealed the orderSee 28 U.S.C. § 1292(a)(2) (authorizing appeals from "[i]nterlocutory orders appointing receivers"). Among other things, the order requires that all costs related to the receivership be borne by the State and directs the Receiver to prepare a "Plan of Action" for remedying the constitutional violations and to file regular progress reports with the court.

In May 2007, the Receiver filed a draft Plan of Action calling for the construction of 10,000 new beds and a motion to modify the original stipulated orders to accommodate "the changed circumstances reflected by the need for [the Receiver's] appointment, and in order to facilitate implementation of the [Plan of Action]." Plata v. Schwarzenegger, 560 F.3d 976, 979 (9th Cir. 2009) (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). California's response was to join the motion, which the district court subsequently granted. Over the course of the next fourteen months, the Receiver filed numerous motions and revised plans of action, many of which concerned the construction of new facilities and all of which, until mid-2008, met with the approval or acquiescence of the State. Id. at 979-80.

In July 2008, the Receiver requested $204.6 million in previously appropriated funds from the State for the implementation of its final, court-approved plan of action. Id. at 980. When the State denied its request, the Receiver moved the district court to cite State defendants Schwarzenegger and Chiang for contempt of court for failing to transfer the funds. Id. Following the submission of briefs and a hearing, in which the State averred that it was "unable to provide any of the unencumbered [previously appropriated] funds to the Receiver," the court issued an order directing the State to transfer $250 million to the Receiver no later than November 5, 2008, or risk being cited for contempt. Id. (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). The State appealed the order, but, in March 2009, we dismissed the appeal as non-final because further proceedings relating to the contempt were clearly contemplated. Id. at 982.

Meanwhile, in January 2009, the State had filed in district court the motion that is the subject of this appeal. The State moved to end the receivership and replace the Receiver with a special master. The motion also sought to terminate the Receiver's construction plan. The State contended that, as a matter of law, the PLRA barred the district court from both appointing a receiver and "ordering the construction of prisons." The Receiver made two requests of the district court: first, that it convene an evidentiary hearing on the Motion to Terminate, and, second, that the district court grant it leave to conduct limited discovery regarding certain factual issues implicated in the motion. The State opposed the requests, arguing that the Motion to Terminate was "based on the plain language of the PLRA and present[ed] discrete legal questions" and, therefore, could be decided without an evidentiary hearing.

Observing that the State sought to terminate the receiver-ship on purely legal grounds, the district court denied without prejudice the Receiver's request to schedule an evidentiary hearing, and denied as premature the Receiver's request to conduct limited discovery. Three weeks later, the district court ...

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