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Bivens Action Unavailable Against Federal Private Prison Employees

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that a federal prisoner incarcerated at a privately operated prison may not pursue a Bivens action against private prison employees for violating his Eighth Amendment rights.

Luis Francisco Alba, a federal prisoner incarcerated at the McRae Correctional Institution in McRae, Georgia, filed a pro se civil rights complaint claiming deliberately indifferent medical care. McRae is owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) under contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

According to his complaint, Alba underwent surgery for a benign goiter in his throat while at McRae. He alleged that the surgery damaged his vocal cords, and that despite repeated requests he was not given appropriate post-operative treatment. Alba sued several individual CCA employees, including the warden and other health services staff, but not CCA corporate.

He specifically alleged that prison employees, acting pursuant to CCA policy, had refused to schedule thyroplasty surgery – a corrective procedure recommended by a throat specialist. Alba contended that CCA employees did not authorize the surgery based on a CCA policy that considered the surgery “elective” in order to curtail medical costs. Alba sought monetary damages and an order directing prison officials to perform the thyroplasty.

Proceeding in forma pauperis in the district court, Alba’s complaint was screened pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915a. The magistrate judge issued a report and recommendation that the complaint be dismissed for failure to state a claim.

Characterizing Alba’s complaint as seeking relief under Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 408 U.S. 488 (1971), the magistrate judge concluded that Alba had no cause of action under Bivens because adequate remedies in state court existed by way of negligence or medical malpractice actions. The district court concurred with the magistrate’s recommendation and overruled Alba’s objections. With the assistance of appointed counsel, Alba appealed.

In Bivens, “the Supreme Court for the first time implied a private right of action for damages against federal officials in the absence of an act of Congress authorizing such an action.” Since then, the Court has only extended Bivens twice. In both cases the Supreme Court found the plaintiffs did not have alternative remedies. Aside from those two cases, the Court has consistently refused to extend Bivens. Most recently, the Court declined to do so in Correctional Services Corp. v. Malesko, 354 U.S. 61 (2001), a case the Eleventh Circuit described as being “very similar” to Alba’s. In Malesko the Supreme Court refused to infer a damages action against a private prison company under contract with the federal government.

Turning to the merits of Alba’s appeal, the Eleventh Circuit declined to extend Bivens to claims against private prison employees working under contract with the BOP. Alba had argued that he lacked an alternative remedy because 1) the “remedy must be a federal remedy,” and 2) Georgia’s requirement that a medical malpractice suit be accompanied by an affidavit from an expert was an almost impossible hurdle for an indigent prisoner.

Nonetheless, the Eleventh Circuit, citing Malesko, held that an alternative remedy need not be federal. As for the difficulties with Georgia’s affidavit requirement, the appellate court noted that Alba stood “in the same shoes as anyone else in Georgia filing a professional malpractice claim.” Even a “free citizen,” the Court of Appeals observed, would have difficulty in obtaining the required affidavit, “especially one with limited funds.” The fact that Georgia’s procedural rules may complicate the filing of a lawsuit does not mean that a plaintiff lacks “any alternative remedy for harms caused by an individual officer’s unconstitutional conduct.” Lastly, the Eleventh Circuit found that “Georgia’s tort laws are not ‘inconsistent or hostile’ to the rights protected by the Eighth Amendment.”

Accordingly, the judgment of the district court dismissing Alba’s complaint for failure to state a claim was affirmed. See: Alba v. Daniels, 517 F.3d 1249 (11th Cir. 2008), cert. denied.

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Related legal case

Alba v. Daniels