Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

California Prisoner Permitted to Challenge Oppressive Prison Conditions Absent Physical Injury; Ruling Later Voided

by John E. Dannenberg

The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed a U.S. District Court (N.D. Cal.) ruling that had misinterpreted 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e) to require physical injury in order to gain relief from unconstitutional prison conditions. While not a ruling on the merits, the decision permitted the prisoner to seek limited damages; however, that appellate decision was later superseded.

James Myron, a prisoner at a Blythe, California state prison, sued prison officials on six complaints of ?oppressive conditions? of confinement. The district court had dismissed two of the claims because Myron demonstrated no physical injury resulting from ?overcrowding.? While affirming the district court on the bulk of its dismissal order, the Ninth Circuit reversed in part, relying upon Oliver v. Keller, 289 F.3d 623, 630 (9th Cir. 2002) to interpret § 1997e(e) to permit nominal and punitive damages.

Myron also complained of his restrictively high security classification level, but the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court?s dismissal of this claim, holding that no liberty interest attached to that classification. Similarly, the Ninth Circuit ruled that Myron?s limited law library hours during a lockdown did not impinge upon a federally protected liberty interest, as California prison regulation 15 CCR § 3120(a) gave the warden discretion in setting library access.

Of novel interest to PLN readers, the Ninth Circuit held that Myron had no protectable liberty interest when prison officials denied him participation in the publication and distribution of a prisoner newspaper. In this instance, the alleged participation ?right? is set forth in prison regulation 15 CCR § 3250, which vests unfettered discretionary approval by the warden to produce such a journal. Because § 3250 did not impose ?substantive predicates? or use ?mandatory language,? it did not eliminate all discretion and thus did not create a federally protected liberty interest.

In an unpublished portion of the ruling filed separately, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Myron?s challenge to the adequacy of the prison grievance system, holding that there is no constitutional right to an effective grievance system. The Ninth Circuit further relied on Jones v. N.C. Prisoners? Labor Union, Inc., 433 U.S. 119 (1977) to hold that Myron had no constitutionally protected right to form a political action committee in prison.

Finally, the appeals court ruled meritorious Myron?s allegation that he was being unconstitutionally denied receipt of magazines and newspapers absent defendants offering a legitimate penological interest in so restricting First Amendment rights. The court relied upon Crofton v. Roe, 170 F.3d 957 (9th Cir. 1999) [prisoners may receive gifted publications] in reversing and remanding the district court?s earlier blanket dismissal. See: Myron v. Terhune, 457 F.3d 996 (9th Cir. 2006), and 196 Fed.Appx. 601 (9th Cir. 2006) (unpublished Memorandum Opinion).

The Ninth Circuit subsequently withdrew and superseded its earlier published and unpublished opinions on Feb. 7, 2007. In the superseding ruling, the appellate court held 1) that state regulations governing security classification of prisoners and facility placement did not give prisoners a liberty interest in placement at a facility consistent with their security level; 2) prison regulations did not give prisoners a liberty interest in participating in the publication and distribution of an inmate publication; and 3) classification to higher-level security facility than indicated by a prisoner?s individual security classification did not violate the Eighth Amendment.

The Ninth Circuit did not address the physical injury requirement under 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e) in its superseding ruling. The dismissal of the conditions claims in Myron?s suit was affirmed. See: Myron v. Terhune, 476 F.3d 716 (9th Cir. 2007).

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal cases

Myron v. Terhune

Myron v. Terhune

Myron v. Terhune