RBGG’s Michael Bien has once again been named by the Daily Journal as one of the Top 100 Lawyers in California. This is the seventh time that Michael has been named to the list. An article in the Daily Journal on September 19, 2019 highlights his leadership in the ground-breaking class action, Coleman v. Brown, brought on behalf of all California state prisoners with serious mental illness. The case challenges inadequate mental health care systems that place prisoners at serious risk of death, injury and prolonged suffering. After a full trial in 1995, the federal court issued an injunction requiring major changes in the prison mental health system.
Michael told the DJ, “It has been the case of my lifetime. I have used it to become a broader expert in the policy of prison reform.” He goes on to say, “It’s not entirely the [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s] fault that they can’t get out of this case. Prison is not a good place for mental health treatment, starting with the fact that it is very difficult to find doctors willing to work in the prison system. I want Coleman to end too, but we need to address some broader problems.”
“Californians are shocked, but Texas has a good model for keeping the mentally ill out of prison,” said Michael. “I hope to go see for myself in Houston soon. Baltimore has a sequential diversion program that looks promising.”
In the 12 years after the original 1995 ruling and injunction, the skyrocketing inmate population overwhelmed the mental health and medical care systems in California’s state prisons. In 2007, plaintiffs’ counsel moved for orders capping the state prison population. A special three-judge court issued a population cap order in 2009, which the United States Supreme Court affirmed in 2011. In 2013, the state moved to terminate all relief. After full discovery and briefing, the trial court denied the motion to terminate. The court then held new trials in 2013 on key obstacles to bringing the mental health system into compliance, including inadequate access to inpatient psychiatric care, over-reliance on segregation (solitary confinement), and inadequate protections against use-of-force. The court ordered new changes to the mental health system to address use-of-force and segregation. Since 2015, the court has focused on bringing the case to a conclusion by fixing long-term shortages in mental health staffing, and lack of access to crisis units for persons in life-threatening mental health crises. After new evidentiary hearings in 2017, the court has issued a series of orders to address these problems.
On November 28, 2018, the Ninth Circuit issued two unanimous rulings affirming lower court decisions on behalf of the class. The Court dismissed the State’s appeal of an April 2017 order because the district court had not granted or modified an injunction under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(a)(1) in requiring the State to comply with prior orders to transfer class members to inpatient care in a timely fashion, nor had it issued a final order pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291 because contempt proceedings remained ongoing. See Coleman v. Brown, 743 Fed. Appx. 875 (9th Cir. 2018). The Court separately upheld a October 2017 order on the merits, ruling that district court complied with the Constitution and the Prison Litigation Reform Act in holding the State to its twenty-four hour timeframe to transfer patients in mental health crisis to licensed hospital settings, as longer waits “create ‘a substantial risk of serious harm’” in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Coleman v. Brown, 756 Fed. Appx. 677 (9th Cir. 2018) (quoting Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 828 (1994)). These appellate victories ensure timely access to critically needed psychiatric inpatient hospitalization for the members of the Coleman class, and the State’s compliance with the inpatient transfer timelines has dramatically improved in the wake of the rulings.