Caltrans May Clear Homeless Encampments Near Freeway Exit Ramps

A Caltrans crew removes debris next to an Interstate 80 on-ramp after CHP officers cleared out a homeless encampment on Gilman Street in Berkeley, Calif. on Aug. 4, 2016. Photo Source: A Caltrans crew removes debris next to an Interstate 80 on-ramp after CHP officers cleared out a homeless encampment on Gilman Street in Berkeley, Calif. file photo, Aug. 4, 2016.(Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle)

The plaintiff is the aptly-named “Where Do We Go Berkeley?” (WDWG), a homeless advocacy organization. It filed suit against the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) when the Department tried to clear two encampments near freeways that were home to about 30 homeless individuals, many of them physically or mentally disabled.

The Ninth Circuit ruled that the District Court erred when it issued a partial preliminary injunction that required Caltrans to give a six-month notice, rather than 72 hours, to find alternative housing before they cleared the camps. As a result, WDWG’s name remains a valid question for the homeless once again.

Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, Circuit Judge Ryan D. Nelson vacated the partial injunction issued by Judge Edward M. Chen of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Chen had found the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) applied to Caltrans in this situation and that a six-month notice, rather than 72 hours, was a “reasonable modification” under the Act.

On April 28, Ryan remanded the case and concluded that the district court “abused its discretion when evaluating the injunction’s harms to Caltrans and public safety, and thus erred in balancing the equities.” Plaintiffs had claimed that the ADA required a six-month grace period to aid plaintiffs in relocating.

Ryan’s opinion initially found that the appeal was not moot even though the injunction had expired while the case was on appeal because the plaintiff was seeking an extension and the situation might recur in the future. On the merits, Ryan began with an explanation of Caltrans’ authority. California law gives the agency "full possession and control" of state highways and property acquired for state highway purposes.” In order to fulfill its duty, Caltrans conducts risk assessments and assigns each homeless encampment a priority level that reflects its “risk to public safety.”

Level 1 is given to sites that pose “critical safety concerns” and “imminent dangers to the unsheltered or the public.” Level 2 sites pose fewer safety concerns. Caltrans had labeled the sites involved as Level 1, and plaintiffs did not contest this designation. The construction of a housing development on Caltrans land that was leased to a developer caused the agency to tell the homeless in that Level 1 location that they would be removed and relocated if possible. This notice came on June 8, 2021. The following day, plaintiffs sued Caltrans for violating the ADA.

Plaintiffs asked the district court for a temporary restraining order (TRO) until housing could be arranged for all homeless encampment dwellers. They were initially given ten days, which were later extended to a month and a half. When some of the homeless plaintiffs found housing, they were dropped from the suit, but others were added and were soon offered shelter in a warehouse called Horizon. Plaintiffs claimed their disabilities prevented them from accessing the building. Another injunction was requested and granted.

The court then allowed Caltrans to clear the leased part of its property but said they could not clear the rest for six months. On balance, it found that potential harm to the disabled homeless outweighed the harm caused by a six-month delay in cleaning the homeless camps. Caltrans appealed because the construction timeline would make the court’s decision moot. The Ninth Circuit then reviewed its jurisdiction and found the case was not moot.

The discussion began with the Supreme Court’s criteria for a preliminary injunction. WDWG had to prove they were likely to succeed, would suffer irreparable harm if they didn’t, that “equity tipped in their favor,” and that the injunction would be in the public interest. The Ninth Circuit found the district court erred when it gave too much merit to the ADA claim. The ADA requires “reasonable accommodation to disabled persons because they . . . need more time before being evicted." However, Ryan said that the district court erred when it required a six-month delay before clearing its properties. It did not agree that this would be a “reasonable modification” of Caltrans programs.

He also found the district court wrongly decided that “the balance of hardships tipped sharply in Plaintiffs' favor because Caltrans could allow people to move to Seabreeze, a different Caltrans property that had been previously cleared. Moving from one property to another that had already been cleared was not an acceptable solution.

Ryan concluded that he disagreed with how the district court balanced the equities in the case. He said that on balance, the need to mitigate the harm to Caltrans and the public over time shifted in favor of Caltrans.

This decision leaves “Where Do We Go Berkeley” with another unanswered question as the case is remanded to district court.

Maureen Rubin, J.D.
Maureen Rubin, J.D.
Maureen Rubin is an Emeritus Professor of Journalism at California State University where she taught media law and writing and served as an administrator. Previously, she worked in the Carter White House and U.S. Congress, She is a graduate of Catholic University Law School and holds a Master's from USC.