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Nominal Damages for Atlanta Georgia Jail’s Ban on Magazines, Books and Newspapers

On April 17, 2008, a Georgia federal court granted a prisoner summary judgment and nominal damages in a lawsuit over a jail policy that barred prisoners from receiving books, newspapers and magazines.

David Robertson was incarcerated in the Fulton County (Atlanta) jail from April 2005 through April 2007. He filed a pro se civil rights suit against the sheriff and another jail official in federal district court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, challenging a mail policy that prohibited prisoners from receiving newspapers, books and magazines. Robertson sought injunctive and declaratory relief plus nominal, compensatory and punitive damages.

The same mail policy previously had been declared unconstitutional in Daker v. Barrett, U.S.D.C. (N.D. GA), Case No. 1:00-cv-1065-RWS on July 22, 2002, but it wasn’t changed until January 4, 2008 when Prison Legal News filed suit challenging the publication ban. Fulton County Sheriff Myron Freeman took office in January 2008. He alleged that he was unaware the policy was unconstitutional, and changed it as soon as he found out. Both Robertson and the defendants filed motions for summary judgment.

The district court found that Robertson’s claims for declaratory and injunctive relief were moot because he had since been released from the jail. The court also found that Robertson was not entitled to compensatory damages, because he had failed to prove any monetary loss and was prohibited from recovering for mental and emotional injuries under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e)).

The court held that Robertson was entitled to summary judgment on liability but only entitled to nominal damages. He could not recover punitive damages because he failed to show evil motive or intent by the defendants, or that they acted recklessly or with callous indifference to his federally protected rights. The court held that the 2002 ruling declaring the jail policy unconstitutional was insufficient notice to the defendants, as were two unrelated lawsuits challenging the same policy filed by another prisoner and Prison Legal News. [See: PLN, Dec. 12, p.30; March 2008, p.31].

The district court also ignored Robertson’s written grievances, calling the copies of them illegible, and his claims that he had verbally complained to jail staff about the policy. The court found that because the defendants were not employed at the Sheriff’s office in 2002 and there was no evidence they knew the policy was unconstitutional prior to being served with Robertson’s suit in May 2007, combined with the jail’s adoption of a revised mail policy, meant there was no proof of evil intent or reckless indifference.

Thus, the court granted Robertson’s motion for summary judgment as to liability and awarded him $1.00 in nominal damages, while granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to all other damages. See: Robertson v. Freeman, U.S.D.C. (N.D. GA, Atlanta Div.), Case No. 1:06-cv-01940-MHS.

PLN’s lawsuit against the Fulton County Jail concerning the prior unconstitutional mail policy, filed on October 22, 2007, remains pending on cross motions for summary judgment. The court previously granted PLN’s motion for a preliminary injunction enjoining the ban. See: PLN v. Fulton County, U.S.D.C. (N.D. GA), Case No. 1:07-cv-02618.

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Related legal case

Robertson v. Freeman