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Sovereign Immunity No Bar to BOP Prisoners' Eighth Amendment Mandamus Suit

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that a federal prisoner's mandamus action alleging an Eighth Amendment violation is not barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. This action was brought by Bureau of Prisons (BOP) prisoner Ron Simmat, who is incarcerated in the United States Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas.

Simmat submitted a request to BOP staff in August 1999, seeking treatment by a dentist for a cavity. He filed a subsequent request in November 1999. On April 9, 2000, Simmat filed yet another request stating that his lower chewing molar had begun giving him constant pain, which gets really bad when I lay down. Four days later, Simmat was ordered to report for an X-ray, which indicated that the tooth might need to be extracted. Simmat was asked to return for a follow-up in two months. He did not return and received no further dental care for his other dental problems, which included gum disease, several cavities and a root that protruded from his gums.

He filed his pro se complaint in Kansas federal district court, seeking injunctive relief for the denied dental care in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The defendants moved for dismissal on the ground that sovereign immunity deprived the court of subject matter jurisdiction. The district court held that because Simmat only sought injunctive relief, it had jurisdiction. Summary judgment, however, was granted the defendants for Simmat's failure to raise a genuine issue of fact regarding deliberate indifference to a serious medical condition.

The Tenth Circuit held that Simmat's claim met the basic requirements of federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, for it sought recovery under the Constitution or federal law and was neither immaterial or frivolous. But jurisdiction is not enough to bring suit; a plaintiff must also state a claim upon which relief may be granted, what used to be called a cause of action.

The real question before the Court was what type of action is allowed. It held a Bivens action against the defendants in their official capacity is not allowed. The appellate court held that a prisoner seeking injunctive relief to compel a government official to perform non-discretionary duties should bring a mandamus action under 28 U.S.C. § 1361.

The BOP argued that because Simmat's suit would require affirmative action by [the] sovereign, namely the provision of dental care, it was prohibited by Larson v. Domestic & Foreign Commerce Corp., 337 U.S. 682 (1949). The Court held this interpretation would leave prisoners without a remedy for federal prison officials' failure to carry out their constitutional duties, violating the basic principle that "where federally protected rights have been invaded, it has been the rule from the beginning that courts will be alert to adjust their remedies so as to grant the necessary relief." Moreover, Congress passed legislation to waive sovereign immunity in most suits for non-monetary relief in 1976. See: 5 U.S.C. § 702.

While the Tenth Circuit held that sovereign immunity did not bar Simmat's Eighth Amendment claim seeking a mandatory injunction, or more precisely, relief and the nature of mandamus, his claim was ordered dismissed without prejudice for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. See: Simmat v. United States Bureau of Prisons, 413 F.3d 1225 (10th Cir. 2005).

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