Supreme Court prohibits federal inmates from seeking damages from private prison employees

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Tuesday in Minneci v. Pollard [SCOTUSblog backgrounder; JURIST report] that where state tort law authorizes adequate remedies for individuals harmed by private employees working at a federal facility, and where the private employees have no employment or contractual relationship with the government, no remedy under Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics [opinion text] can be applied. Respondent Richard Lee Pollard filed a complaint in 2002 against employees of the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, which operated the federal prison facility where he was a prisoner. Pollard alleged that employees violated his Eight Amendment [text] rights by denying him adequate medical care which resulted in injury and "cruel and unusual punishment." The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed [opinion, PDF] a federal district court judge and held that the Eight Amendment provided Pollard with a Bivens action against the private prison employees. In the majority opinion authored by Justice Stephen Breyer, the court held that in determining whether a Bivens remedy can be applied to alleged Eight Amendment violations, "the question is whether, in general, state tort law remedies provide roughly similar incentives for potential defendants to comply with the Eighth Amendment while also providing roughly similar compensation to victims of violations." The court concluded that while state law tort remedies may be more limited than some Bivens remedies, prisoners alleging a violation of their Eight Amendment rights by private employees at federal facilities would have adequate remedies under state tort law, and therefore no Bivens remedy can apply. Justice Antonin Scalia authored a concurring opinion in the case in which he was joined by Justice Clarence Thomas. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the lone dissenter in the case.

The court heard oral arguments [JURIST report] in the case in November. During oral arguments the court appeared to be strongly convinced by the government-petitioner's argument that Bivens should continue to be used as a last resort and not expanded when state law provides adequate redress. Respondents argued that Bivens casts a wide net and allows any specific civil action that is not delineated by that state's law, whereas several justices argued with the attorney that almost any action could be addressed by state tort law. Respondent also suggested that as his client was a federal prisoner prosecuted by the federal government, with only access to federal law in the prison library, he should be allowed to address his claims in federal court.

 

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