The Highs and Lows of Mental Health Care Class Action Litigation in Illinois Prisons — Impact Fund

The Prison Litigation Reform Act 

The plaintiffs’ first and second attempts to force IDOC to implement the settlement were unsuccessful. Both times, the court held that the defendants should have more time to reach full compliance with the agreement. Then, as plaintiffs were preparing to bring a third motion to enforce the settlement, defendants—for the first time—argued that the settlement agreement was not enforceable at all, citing the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).  

Under the PLRA, all settlements are divided into two categories: consent decrees and private settlement agreements. Consent decrees are agreements that must specifically address a constitutional violation, and the court retains jurisdiction to enforce the agreement. Meanwhile, in private settlement agreements, the court has no power of enforcement.  

We believed we were being creative with our settlement agreement because the plaintiffs, the defendants, and the judge all believed that the settlement was a private settlement agreement. With this, we wouldn’t need a constitutional violation to be found, to which we thought IDOC would never agree.  

In 2022, defendants unexpectedly reversed course, and argued that the settlement was not (as everyone had heretofore agreed) a private settlement agreement; rather, it was a consent decree because the court retained jurisdiction. However, defendants argued, since the settlement did not have the required constitutional violation, it also was not enforceable as a consent decree. In other words, it was a settlement which could not be enforced at all. 

An Unjust Outcome 

After months of briefing and argument, the trial court agreed with IDOC, and found that the settlement was neither a consent decree nor a private settlement agreement. The court thus returned the case to  trial. The Impact Fund helped fund updated expert reports, which only confirmed that the system—after more than a decade of litigation—still did not provide meaningful treatment to Illinois prisoners with serious mental illnesses. 

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