Eleventh Circuit Rules for Defendant on Eighth Amendment and PLRA Damages Claim in Case Involving UGA Law Appellate Litigation Clinic

Eleventh Circuit Rules for Defendant on Eighth Amendment and PLRA Damages Claim in Case Involving UGA Law Appellate Litigation Clinic

Editor’s Note: The following essay was co-authored by Emily V. Cox and Alec L. Manzer, the winners of the Martin-Carnes Competition for Excellence in Writing.  The competition was open to all rising second-year students at the University of Georgia School of Law.  Awards were given for best overall submission, which went to Ms. Cox, and most improved writing, which went to Mr. Manzer.  The competition problem was based on a then-pending decision before the Eleventh Circuit, Brooks v. Warden.  In early September 2015, the Eleventh Circuit rendered a decision on Brooks and the Georgia Law Review Online was pleased to offer Ms. Cox and Mr. Manzer an opportunity to report on the case.  Ms. Cox addresses the court’s findings on the Eighth Amendment claim in Part I and Mr. Manzer addresses the issue of damages in Part II.

PART I

In Brooks v. Warden, the Eleventh Circuit considered an alleged violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.[1]  The plaintiff, a prisoner, alleged that the defendant, a deputy warden, violated this prohibition by subjecting him to certain conditions during a stint of hospitalization.  In his motion to dismiss, the warden argued in the first instance that he did not violate the Eighth Amendment, or, in the alternative, that he was protected by qualified immunity.  The United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss and the plaintiff appealed.

The plaintiff’s Eighth Amendment claim was based on the conditions of his confinement while he was hospitalized.  The plaintiff was involved in a prison riot during which he suffered injuries so severe that he needed hospitalization.  While in the hospital, the defendant and three other armed prison officials guarded the plaintiff.  The plaintiff alleged: (1) that while he was hospitalized the defendant would not loosen the plaintiff’s shackles to allow him to use the bathroom, but instead forced him to lie in his own excrement for two days; (2) the defendant refused to allow the nursing staff to clean the plaintiff or give him adult diapers; and (3) the guards mocked the plaintiff and laughed at him during this ordeal.

The Eleventh Circuit’s analysis was threefold.  First, the court determined that the conditions to which the plaintiff was subjected constituted a violation of the Eighth Amendment.  Second, the court determined that all three elements of a deliberate indifference claim against the defendant were sufficiently pleaded.  Finally, the court found qualified immunity did not apply to the defendant.

The court examined Eleventh Circuit precedent, as well as case law from other circuit courts, to determine that the conditions the plaintiff was subjected to constituted a violation of the Eighth Amendment.  The surveyed precedent supported the court’s finding that prisoners have a “well established Eighth Amendment right not to be confined . . . in conditions lacking basic sanitation.”[2]  The court went a step further, stating, “[i]n some ways, [the plaintiff’s] allegations are worse than those found in the governing caselaw.”[3]  The court also dismissed the defendant’s argument that a plaintiff must allege pain in order to show a violation of the Eighth Amendment.  Thus, the court found that the defendant violated the plaintiff’s rights under the Eighth Amendment.

The Eleventh Circuit then examined the three essential elements of a deliberate indifference claim: “(1) a substantial risk of serious harm; (2) the defendants’ deliberate indifference to that risk; and (3) a causal connection between the defendants’ conduct and the Eighth Amendment violation.”[4]  The court found the first element was met because of the health risks of prolonged exposure to human excrement.  The element of deliberate indifference to risk was met when the plaintiff allegedly requested that the warden allow him to use the toilet, and the warden did not reasonably respond to this request.  The third element, what the court calls the “causation element,”[5] was not disputed; the alleged actions of the defendant all directly resulted in the Eighth Amendment violation.

Finally, the court considered the defendant’s qualified immunity defense, finding that the warden was not shielded from liability.  Qualified immunity protects government officials from civil liability as long as their conduct does not violate a clearly established constitutional right.[6]  The official must be acting within the scope of his discretionary authority, which was not disputed in this case.  Once the government official establishes that he was acting under discretionary authority, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that qualified immunity is not appropriate.  The court held that established case law provided “fair and clear warning” to the defendant that his conduct violated the Eighth Amendment. [7]  The court pointed to two cases that, taken together, were sufficient to serve as a warning to the warden, despite not having identical facts.[8]  Furthermore, the court held this was a “rare case of obvious clarity, in which conduct is so egregious that no prior case law is needed to put a reasonable officer on notice of its unconstitutionality.”[9]  Since a reasonable official would understand the defendant’s actions constituted a violation of the Eighth Amendment, the court held that qualified immunity did not apply to the warden.

Having concluded that the plaintiff pleaded sufficient facts to allege a violation of the Eighth Amendment, satisfy each element of a deliberate indifference claim, and plausibly defeat a qualified immunity defense, the court reversed the district court’s dismissal and remanded the case for further proceedings.

PART II

One issue before the Eleventh Circuit in Brooks v. Warden was whether the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e) (2012), barred the appellant from recovering nominal damages for a constitutional claim where the appellee did not allege any physical injuries.[10]  The court held that nothing in “§ 1997e(e) prevents a prisoner from recovering nominal damages for a constitutional violation without a showing of physical injury.”[11]

The court recognized the purpose of § 1997e(e), titled “Limitation on Recovery,” is to “reduce the number of frivolous cases filed by imprisoned plaintiffs, who have little to lose and excessive amounts of free time with which to pursue their complaints.”[12]  The court reasoned that although Congress’s intent was to reduce the burden prisoner litigation places on the courts by requiring prisoners to show proof of physical injury, the PLRA was not meant to interfere with the preservation of absolute constitutional rights.  The Eleventh Circuit further noted that Supreme Court precedent recognizes certain violations of “absolute rights” may be vindicated through the award of nominal damages, even without a showing of a physical injury.[13]

According to the court, the plaintiff’s purpose in seeking nominal damages was “to vindicate the deprivation of his constitutional rights”[14] and not “for mental or emotional injury suffered while in custody without a prior showing of physical injury.”  The Eleventh Circuit previously held that punitive damages are barred by § 1997e(e) because a prisoner would be able to seek recovery without physical injury “simply by adding a claim for punitive damages.”[15].  The court distinguished nominal damages from punitive damages by reasoning that the possibility of a pecuniary award, no matter how small, incentivizes prisoner suits for punitive damages that are not able to show physical injury, while prisoner suits for nominal damages do not have this incentive.  Under this line of reasoning, the court believed that the PLRA’s purpose would not be undermined because without the possibility of pecuniary reward, prisoners are not likely to bring frivolous suits for nominal damages.

Finally, the Eleventh Circuit noted that reading the PLRA to allow nominal damages for constitutional claims was supported by decisions from other circuits as well as its own precedent.  The court specifically noted that the D.C. Circuit, the only other circuit to also bar punitive damages under § 1997e(e), while not addressing the issue directly, stated that the theory in support of nominal damages recognizes that the deprivation of the right itself is important enough to be the basis for the suit.[16]  As to its own precedent, the court noted that it recognized the possibility of nominal damages for constitutional claims in dicta, as well as explicitly holding that suits for nominal damages without physical injury are not barred by § 1997e(e) in several non-binding unpublished opinions.  The Eleventh Circuit was persuaded by these findings to conclude that the plaintiff could proceed with his suit for nominal damages despite not alleging physical injury.

 



[1] No. 13–14437, 2015 WL 5157339 (11th Cir. Sept. 3, 2015).

[2] Id. at *7 (quoting Chandler v. Baird, 926 F.2d 1057, 1066–67 (11th Cir. 1991) (internal quotation marks omitted)).

[3] Id. at *8.

[4] Id. at *6.

[5] Id. at *9.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. (quoting Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 741 (2002)).

[8] Chandler v. Baird, 926 F.2d 1057 (11th Cir. 1991); Novak v. Beto, 453 F.2d 661 (5th Cir. 1971).

[9] Id. at *10 (quoting Gilmore v. Hodges, 738 F.3d 266, 277 (11th Cir. 2013) (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted)).

[10] No. 13–14437, 2015 WL 5157339 (11th Cir. Sept. 3, 2015).

[11] Id. at *10.

[12] Id. (quoting Al-Amin v. Smith, 637 F.3d 1192, 1195 (11th Cir. 2011)).

[13] Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247, 255 (1978).

[14] Brooks, 2015 WL 5157339, at *11.

[15] Al-Amin, 637 F.3d at 1197 (quoting Davis v. District of Columbia, 158 F.2d 1342, 1348 (D.C. Cir. 1998)).

[16] Davis, 158 F.2d at 1348.

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