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Fifth Circuit: § 1983 Nominal and Punitive Damages Allowed Absent Physical Injury

Fifth Circuit: § 1983 Nominal and Punitive Damages Allowed Absent Physical Injury

For the first time in a published opinion, the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has held that a prisoner pursuing a civil rights action against prison officials may seek nominal and punitive damages even if no physical injury is alleged.

Ronald L. Hutchins, a Texas state prisoner, filed a pro se 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights suit in federal district court against Johnny B. McDaniels, a Texas prison guard, alleging that McDaniels had improperly strip searched him in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights.

Hutchins claimed that while he was waiting for a scheduled law library session, McDaniels ordered him to strip, then to “lean against a wall and stick his buttocks out as far as possible and spread his legs wide.” McDaniels told Hutchins “to step back, lift one leg up, hop on one foot, switch legs and go in the opposite direction about thirty feet.”

Hutchins protested that he couldn’t do so due to a back injury and bad ankle, but McDaniels threatened to lock him up if he failed to comply. According to Hutchins, McDaniels carried out the strip search with a “lewd smile” and in view of other prisoners and a female guard. Hutchins complied with the orders. During the demeaning search, McDaniels did not accuse him of possessing any contraband.

The district court initially dismissed Hutchins’ complaint because he failed to allege any physical injury, and the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e), prohibits the recovery of damages absent physical injury. Hutchins appealed.

The Fifth Circuit first held that “the Fourth Amendment protects prisoners from searches and seizures that go beyond legitimate penological interests.” The Court then ruled that failure to allege any physical injury precluded Hutchins from recovering compensatory damages for emotional or mental injuries.

Hutchins argued on appeal that even if compensatory damages were barred, he could still recover nominal and punitive damages. The Fifth Circuit noted that it had not addressed this particular issue in a published opinion. However, it had recognized that non-prisoners may recover nominal and punitive damages for violations of the Fourth Amendment, and that § 1997e(e) does not bar declaratory or injunctive relief.

In unpublished opinions, the Fifth Circuit had previously held that § 1997e(e) did not prohibit the recovery of nominal damages for a constitutional violation. This was in accord with published opinions from the Second, Third, Seventh, Tenth and Eleventh Circuits.

The Fifth Circuit had also previously held in a published non-prisoner case that punitive damages “may stand in the absence of actual damages where there has been a constitutional violation.” That ruling had been extended to prisoners despite § 1997e(e) in a series of cases, both published and unpublished. Noting that the “vast majority of our sister circuits have held the same,” the appellate court concluded that a prisoner may recover nominal or punitive damages for a constitutional violation even if no physical injury is alleged.

Therefore, the Fifth Circuit reversed the judgment of the district court and remanded the case for further proceedings. The case is still pending and Hutchins has been appointed counsel to represent him at trial See: Hutchins v. McDaniels, 512 F.3d 193 (5th Cir. 2007).

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Related legal case

Hutchins v. McDaniels