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Eastern District of California Swamped by Prisoner Lawsuits
Nineteen of California’s 33 state and federal prisons are located along Interstate 5 in the Eastern District of California, housing nearly 70 percent of the state’s total prisoner population. Not surprisingly, prisoner lawsuits last year gave the district the highest weighted civil caseload per judgeship in the nation.
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Chief Magistrate Judge Sandra Snyder describes the caseload in one word: crushing.
“The prisons in our district house roughly 100,000 prisoners. And nothing we’re able to do will ever stem the tide of prisoner lawsuits,” said Snyder. “In addition, our district is considered to be in the epicenter of mortgage fraud, which generates more lawsuits, adding to our crisis.”
Prisoner petitions constitute nearly 54 percent of the district’s caseload—far exceeding a district’s more typical 10 percent. And although many don’t make it beyond pre-trial motions, all must be screened and dealt with as initially valid.
“They’re not all meritless,” said Snyder. “Each of those lawsuits has to be resolved. Many are amended and re-filed, sometimes twice. But faster than we can move cases through, more come in. It got to the point, a few years ago, where we simply could not keep up with the filings, due in large measure to not having the number of judges we needed to handle the caseload.”
“So, the Ninth Circuit stepped in and asked what could be done to help,” said Judge Morrison England, who joined the district bench in 2002. He is a member of the Resource Committee formed by Chief Judge Alex Kozinski (9th Cir.) in 2007 to come up with ways to eliminate some of the backlog in the district. In one of its actions, the committee called upon Ninth Circuit judges and district judges for assistance; 16 Ninth Circuit appellate judges and 72 district judges volunteered to take older prisoner habeas corpus and civil rights cases. By mid-March 2010, the Circuit reported that the volunteer judges had resolved more than 539 cases.
Prisoner petitions constitute nearly 54 percent of the district’s caseload—far exceeding a district’s more typical 10 percent.
Despite having the second highest number of terminated cases in the nation, the district still ranks at the top for total filings per judgeship and for number of pending cases. (Only the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ranks higher for total filings, due to consolidated asbestos cases.)
One of the projects aimed at resolving prisoner civil rights actions in the district—so called “1983 cases” because they’re brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983—sends judges into the prisons.
Magistrate Judge Craig Kellison (E.D. Cal.), who sits in Redding, volunteered early on to spend several days a month visiting Level 4 prisons—prisons with the highest security and the most dangerous prisoners—to settle prisoner cases. At the southern end of the district, Magistrate Judge Jennifer Thurston, who sits in Bakersfield, also is developing a program traveling to prisons to resolve lawsuits. When it’s not possible to go to the prison or to bring prisoners to court, Kellison is exploring videoconferencing and Snyder has had some success conducting settlements by phone, putting the prisoner on one line, and the defense attorney on another. In an interim effort supported by the Resource Committee, Magistrate Judge Nando J. Vadas (N.D. Calif.) was cross-designated approximately 36 months ago by Chief Judge Anthony Ishii (E.D. Cal.) to assist in settling prisoner cases. Traveling to the California State Prison at Solano, Vadas works to resolve cases brought under § 1983 both on behalf of his home district as well as for the Eastern District of California.
“Usually these lawsuits are brought by men who are in very tough institutions for the rest of their lives,” said Vadas. “You have to be very straightforward. I talk to them about what’s happening in their lawsuit and about appropriate remedies. I listen. They filed a suit and they have a right to be heard. That’s something every federal judge takes seriously.”
“We’re pleased other districts and the Circuit are helping us out, but our need for more judges is critical.”
Cases may be about the loss of property during a cell search, about getting appropriate medical treatment, or about excessive force in an altercation. Prisoners may bring a lawsuit to get a restricted diet required by their religious beliefs. The district also must address actions filed by individuals housed at hospitals and detention facilities under civil commitment or pending civil commitment procedures related to statutes such as the Sexually Violent Predators Act. The district also is seeing an increasing number of civil rights lawsuits filed by detainees challenging their conditions of confinement. Civil rights litigation as it pertains to civil detainees is a developing area of the law and, as such, presents special challenges to the courts handling those cases.
Last year, working with information technology specialists, Kellison developed a system to identify cases appropriate for early dispute resolution, setting a tone for resolution rather than lengthy litigation. With the assistance of a half-time staff member, a one-paragraph status report was prepared on cases identified by the deputy attorney general as being ripe for settlement. The staff member met with prisoners to determine expectations, and if the case seemed amenable, it was referred to mediation. Kellison reported a 60-70 percent success rate in resolving these cases.
With special funding supported by the Resource Committee, the district also was able to hire an alternative dispute resolution coordinator, staff attorney Sujean Park, to help design and coordinate pilot projects to assist in moving prisoner cases through the system. Park has helped with efforts to revive a Prisoner Pro Bono Panel, rallying volunteer lawyers to represent prisoners. Attorney volunteers are being asked to serve as mediators under her direction, as the availability of judges is limited by their numbers as well as by other judicial obligations.
“It’s tough sometimes to match an attorney willing to take a pro bono case with a prisoner,” Park said. “So we offer limited-purpose appointments; maybe the attorney just handles the settlement, or just helps draft a complaint. We have a videoconferencing pilot, where we’ll use three experienced mediators who take five cases each. We’re trying everything, to see what is effective.”
“We are putting a dent in the caseload,” said Kellison. “But even after screening and procedural motions, we are often left with lengthy, confusing complaints having multiple causes of actions against numerous defendants. Obviously, this adds to the difficulty in managing the case, but especially when attempting to mediate a global solution.”
“We’re swamped,” said England. “When I came on the bench, we had seven active district judges. Now, we’re down to six. (The district lost a temporary judgeship in 2008.) Eight years ago, the average caseload per judge was 525 cases; now it’s up to 1,200. Over the years, our five senior judges have had to maintain sustained caseloads because they did not want to leave the active district judges with even larger caseloads than we already have. We’re pleased other districts and the Circuit are helping us out, but our need for more judges is critical. Only Congress can help us with more district judges.”
“Our judges are doing everything possible to handle an overwhelming caseload,” said Chief Judge Ishii. “Certainly, we couldn’t function without the contributions of our magistrate judges and our senior district judges. But we simply don’t have enough district court judges to do the work.”
The Judicial Conference has recommended that four permanent and one temporary judgeship be created in the Eastern District of California. These would be the district’s first new judgeships since 1990. S. 1653, a bill reflecting Conference recommendations on judgeships, was introduced last fall in Congress. Another bill, S. 193, would re-establish the Eastern District of California’s temporary judgeship.
Meanwhile, the lawsuits keep coming.