SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Gutting a federal class action accusing Alameda County and a private contractor of charging inmates on pre-trial detention exorbitant daily fees for ankle monitors, a federal judge on Friday dropped the county from the case and advanced just one racketeering claim.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco said even the extortion-based racketeering claim he kept alive against contractor Leaders in Community Alternatives was tenuous, but passed muster for now.
The claim is based on allegations that LCA, which provides electronic monitoring and other law enforcement services, threatened two plaintiffs with re-arrest if they fell behind on payments for their ankle monitors.
"While improper threats of imprisonment are sufficient at the pleading stage to allege extortion, merely calling plaintiffs to demand LCA’s fees is not," Alsup wrote in a 17-page order Friday. "At trial or on summary judgment, additional facts or circumstances may explain away the hard edge of these threats and doom the case."
"For years, LCA has been terrorizing Oakland residents with threats designed to coerce payment," class counsel Phil Telfeyan, of Equal Justice Under the Law, said Friday by email. In the complaint, Telfeyan says the named plaintiffs "have given up their homes and borrowed money from family and friends to keep up with payments and avoid returning to jail."
William Edwards, Robert Jackson, James Brooks and Kyser Wilson sued LCA and Alameda County over the company's "pay-or-jail scheme" in July. Referred for monitoring under a contract with the county, they claim LCA didn't tell them they were only required to pay what they could afford or that they had the right to ask a judge to determine how much they could afford, in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO.
LCA instead imposed a uniform $150 enrollment fee and a $25.50 daily fee on each plaintiff, the suit claims, and required the fees at least two weeks in advance. They also say the company induced them into signing agreements recognizing late payments could result in more jail time.
Alsup also dismissed claims Friday against LCA and Alameda County for equal protection and due process violations, citing a lack of evidence. LCA, he said, applied its alleged scheme to everyone regardless of financial status, and no due process violations occurred based on county policies, including re-arrest.
Telfeyan declined to comment directly on the decision to throw out the bulk of the suit. But he said LCA's "extortionate conduct has already been the core of our lawsuit against LCA."
"The court's order today allows our RICO claim to go forward against LCA," he said, adding that he plans “to prove at trial that LCA engaged in a pattern of threatening and extortionate behavior."
Alsup closed his order by giving the plaintiffs until January to seek permission to amend and refile their suit, telling them to "plead their best case."
LCA cast doubt on their ability to do so.
"This clearly demonstrates that even with the court being required to accept plaintiff’s allegations as true at the pleading stage, plaintiffs’ claims are not legally viable and lack merit," the company said in a statement. "LCA is confident that once it is able to present evidence, it will be able to show that plaintiffs’ allegations are patently false."
Kevin Gilbert of Orbach, Huff, Suarez & Henderson represents Alameda County. He did not return a request for comment.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.