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Marks v. Colorado Department of Corrections

No. 19-1114. D.Colo. Judge Bacharach. Regression to Prison—Americans with Disabilities Act—Rehabilitation Act—Equal Protection—Mootness.

May 11, 2020


Jefferson County entered into contracts with the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) and Colorado Department of Criminal Justice (CDCJ) to operate a community corrections program. In turn, Jefferson County contracted with Intervention Community Corrections Services (Intervention) to run the community corrections program. Plaintiff entered Intervention while serving a prison term. As a condition, Intervention required her to be employed. While participating in the program, plaintiff aggravated a previous disability when she fell while taking a shower. Intervention deemed her unable to work and regressed her to prison. Following completion of her prison term, plaintiff sued the CDOC and CDCJ for damages and prospective relief under the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and denial of equal protection. The district court dismissed the claims for prospective relief as moot and granted summary judgment on the remaining claims.

On appeal, plaintiff argued that the district court erroneously dismissed her claims for prospective relief because the “capable of repetition yet evading review” exception to the mootness doctrine applied. This exception is narrow and only applies in exceptional situations where a plaintiff establishes that the challenged action occurred too quickly to be fully litigated and a reasonable expectation existed for plaintiff to again experience the same misconduct. The Tenth Circuit assumed without deciding that plaintiff proved that her regression occurred too quickly to be litigated. However, plaintiff completed her sentence and is unlikely to experience the same wrongdoing in the future; she did not allege that she may return to prison, reenter a community corrections program, or again face regression from a program based on her inability to work. Accordingly, the claims for prospective relief became moot when she completed her sentence.

Plaintiff also argued that the district court erred by entering summary judgment on the Rehabilitation Act and ADA claims. She contended that the district court should have focused on whether the CDOC and CDCJ, rather than Intervention, had received federal funds. The Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination against the disabled by recipients of federal funding, and the ADA and Rehabilitation Act apply to state prisons and their prisoners, regardless of whether the federally funded entities provide services directly or through contractual arrangements. In district court, the parties agreed that the CDOC and CDCJ had received federal funding, but the court concluded sua sponte that the Rehabilitation Act didn’t apply because Intervention hadn’t received federal funds. Because the CDOC and CDCJ received federal funding, the Rehabilitation Act applies. Further, the CDOC and CDCJ could incur liability for disability discrimination in their own programs, and Intervention was a program of the CDOC and CDCJ. The CDOC and CDCJ thus cannot avoid statutory liability solely because they were not directly involved in Intervention’s decision to regress plaintiff. Therefore, the district court erred in entering summary judgment on these claims.

Plaintiff also appealed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on her equal protection claim. Pursuant to US Supreme Court precedent, claims of disability discrimination trigger rational basis review, under which the underlying decision is presumed valid. Based on the program’s lack of on-site medical staff, the CDOC and CDCJ could reasonably have considered the facilities unsafe for plaintiff, so plaintiff’s regression was rational. Thus, the summary judgment on the equal protection claim was proper.

The summary judgment on the equal protection claim and the dismissal of the claims for prospective relief as moot were affirmed. The summary judgment on the Rehabilitation Act and ADA claims was reversed and the case was remanded for further proceedings on these claims.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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