13 April 2021

Most Conservative Circuit Finally Acknowledges Prisoner's Rights To Punitive Damages

The 11th Circuit is the most conservative of the U.S. Courts of Appeal, but even it has to succumb to peer pressure sometimes.

In this case acknowledge statutory rights that it has tried to deny incarcerated people who have had their civil rights deprived from them, without a legitimate reason to do so, under case law it established out of little more than conservative animus towards prisoners in the year 2000. 

In 2013, Conraad Hoever was incarcerated at the Franklin Correctional Institution (FCI) in Carrabelle, Florida. According to Mr. Hoever’s complaint, correctional officers there subjected him to harassment and threats of physical violence in retaliation for his filing grievances about his mistreatment. Proceeding on his own (without counsel), Mr. Hoever successfully defended against the officers’ attempts to dismiss his case, and he was ultimately able to present his claim of First Amendment retaliation to a jury. After a three-day trial, during which the jury heard testimony from Mr. Hoever, the defendant officers, and witnesses who corroborated the threats, the jury returned a verdict in Mr. Hoever’s favor. But vindication of Mr. Hoever’s constitutional rights was limited. That is because this circuit has interpreted the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e), as barring punitive damages for a prisoner’s civil action where no physical injury is shown. The jury, therefore, awarded Mr. Hoever only one dollar in nominal damages. 
Our circuit stands alone in enforcing § 1997e(e) as a complete bar to punitive damages, no matter the substantive claim, in the absence of physical injury. Because our interpretation runs counter to the text of the statute, today we correct our course. We now recognize that § 1997e(e) permits claims for punitive damages without a showing of physical injury.

From Hoever v. Marks, Case No. 17-10792 (11th Cir. April 9, 2021) (en banc 10-3 decision).

Even the dissenting opinion states (at page 11 of the slip opinion):

I acknowledge that I’m a lonely voice— that pretty much everyone seems to think the Court has § 1997e(e) exactly right.

The statute does bar non-economic damages (e.g. emotional distress and pain and suffering) in the absence of physical injury. 

Better yet, in an ideal world, the court would have the authority to insist that the offending civil rights violating guards lose their jobs and lose the ability to serve in a law enforcement or corrections position ever again. We don't yet live in an ideal world. But legislatures have the power to improve it by statute.

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