Court Certifies Classes in ‘Kids for Cash’ Case

     (CN) – A federal judge certified classes of thousands of parents and children who say two imprisoned state judges made millions by sending the kids to profit-making detention centers.
     Former Luzerne County Judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan pleaded guilty in federal court in February 2009 to taking $2.6 million in kickbacks for sending juveniles to privately run detention centers, PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care, between 2003 and May 2008.
     Hundreds of children and parents who say they were victimized by the corruption filed two federal RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) class actions a week later.
     In one case, lead plaintiff Florence Wallace says her 14-year-old daughter was taken from Ciavarella’s courtroom in shackles in a case involving alleged threats on MySpace, and sent to a PA Child Care camp
     Plaintiffs in another class action also sued 15 defendants, including attorney Robert Powell, a former co-owner of PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care, and Robert Mericle, who owns a major construction firm that built the children’s prisons.
     Along with wrongful imprisonment claims, some of the plaintiff parents complained their wages were garnished or their Social Security benefits were seized to pay for their childrens’ imprisonment.
     In the face of mounting litigation, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court authorized a special master to review and possibly expunge the detained children’s records. Yet the scandal continued to unfold.
     In February 2012, U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo refused to dismiss some of the claims against Ciavarella and Western PA Child Care. Then earlier this year, former state judge Ann H. Lokuta claimed in federal court that she was defamed and fired because she was an FBI informant in the case.
     At about the same time, in February 2013, plaintiffs in seven separate actions moved to certify two classes: Class A includes about 2,421 children whose adjudications were dismissed by the state Supreme Court on Oct. 29, 2009 or March 29, 2010. At least 1,855 juveniles – who were not informed of their rights before waiving counsel and/or pleading guilty – form one subclass, and roughly 1,442 children who were referred to the detention centers, form another. Class B includes an estimated group of 2,400 juveniles and parents who paid any fees related to the placements.
     The master complaint also asserts claims against the judges’ companies, Pinnacle Group of Jupiter LLC and Beverage Marketing of PA Inc., Powell’s firm, Vision Holdings LLC; and Mid-Atlantic Youth Services Corp. The claims against Luzerne County; the judges’ wives; Mericle and his firm; and former prison co-owner Gregory Zappala, the brother of Allegheny County D.A. Stephen Zappala, were dismissed or resolved by the parties.
     Caputo granted the motion on Tuesday, tossing aside the claims that there “are no more than 1,787 actual class members, and as many as 535 have opted out” and that certain damages claims would have to be tried twice.
     “As noted by class plaintiffs, ‘the type and amount of damages will not be a part of the liability determination under the substantive law of class plaintiffs’ claims,’ Caputo wrote. “Instead, individualized damages will be addressed only once (if defendants are found liable). Moreover, provider defendants improperly conflate ‘injury’ and ‘damages,’ as they claim that ‘proof of the cause and fact of class plaintiffs’ emotional, medical, educational, employment and monetary injuries, and the defenses thereto, require assessments too individualized and divergent to warrant class certification under Rule 23(c)(4).’ These individualized assessments impact on the computation of damages, not whether each plaintiff was in fact injured and denied their rights as a result of defendants’ conduct.”
     The plaintiffs met all requirements for class certification.”Plaintiffs aptly note, the instant litigation is premised on claims by juveniles relating to the denial of their constitutional rights during the course of their adjudication proceedings,” Caputo wrote. “As a result of their experiences during these proceedings, many class members harbor a distrust of the judicial system, rendering it unlikely that they will seek redress individually. Thus, allowing ‘this to proceed as a class action would not be removing claims from the hands of the class members, but would instead afford them an opportunity to pursue them.’ The presence of numerous common questions of law and fact as to class members’ claims also supports class treatment as it will promote efficiency and preserve judicial resources. Lastly, the court envisions no practical difficulties in managing this class action. The superiority requirement of Rule 23(b)(3) is therefore satisfied.”

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