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Habeas Unavailable for Federal Prisoners’ Medical Claims

Federal prisoners may not resort to habeas corpus to challenge inadequate medical care, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit decided on January 26, 2011.

Charles Robinson sought habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 after federal prison officials allegedly refused to treat his complaints of back pain.

The district court dismissed Robinson’s habeas petition on the ground that claims of inadequate medical care are not cognizable via habeas.

Robinson appealed, pressing his claims to the Seventh Circuit. Adhering to its “long-standing view that habeas corpus is not a permissible route for challenging prison conditions,” the appellate court held that Robinson’s medical care complaints had been properly dismissed. There must be at least “an indirect effect on duration of punishment” for habeas to apply, the Seventh Circuit wrote.

What were Robinson’s other options, then? Because he sought only equitable relief, the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) did not provide a remedy. The FTCA only authorizes damages.

The Court of Appeals noted that the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) could “in principle” be invoked to obtain an order for medical treatment, but prisoners would be hard pressed to make out a viable APA claim. The Bureau of Prisons’ Program Statements and Clinical Practice Guidelines, the appellate court explained, are not legally enforceable.

That leaves federal prisoners with Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), the Seventh Circuit concluded. But not all appellate courts are in agreement that Bivens allows for equitable relief, because Bivens suits are against prison officials in their individual capacities. See, e.g.: Simmat v. United States Bureau of Prisons, 413 F.3d 1225, 1239 (10th Cir. 2005) [PLN, Nov. 2006, p.41].

The Second Circuit, however, has held that federal prisoners may resort to habeas petitions for conditions of confinement claims. See, e.g.: Thompson v. Choinski, 525 F.3d 205, 209 (2d Cir. 2008) [PLN, Oct. 2009, p.47].

The judgment of the district court dismissing Robinson’s habeas petition was affirmed. A petition for writ of certiorari was filed with the Supreme Court on April 16, 2011. See: Robinson v. Sherrod, 631 F.3d 839 (7th Cir. 2011), rehearing denied.

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Related legal case

Robinson v. Sherrod