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Eleventh Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Suit Alleging Retaliatory Attack by Guard

By Brandon Sample

On April 26, 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed the dismissal of a failure to protect suit filed by a federal prisoner who claimed that he was attacked by a guard for participating in a prison investigation.

"John Doe" sued Harley Lappin, the Director of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), and Rick Stover, a Senior Designator, after Doe was allegedly attacked by an "Officer Wooten" at the United States Penitentiary (USP) in Atlanta, Georgia for participating in an investigation of a BOP guard at USP Atlanta. Doe claimed that Lappin and Stover violated his Eighth Amendment rights by failing to protect him. Doe sought an order enjoining the defendants from "transporting Mr. Doe to or through any BOP facility in Atlanta," and prohibiting defendants "from incarcerating Mr. Doe in a high security BOP facility and requiring the transfer of Mr. Doe to an appropriate and safe housing placement such as a medium or low security BOP facility or a state correctional facility."

The district court dismissed Doe's official capacity claims against Lappin and Stover, holding both were entitled to sovereign immunity. Doe appealed.

In a per curiam, unpublished opinion, the Eleventh Circuit reversed. Disagreeing with the district court, the Eleventh Circuit held that "a plaintiff may be able to obtain injunctive relief against a federal officer acting in his official capacity when the officer acts beyond statutory or constitutional limitations," citing Larson v. Domestic & Foreign Commerce Corp., 337 U.S. 682 (1949) and Saine v. Hosp. Auth., 502 F.2d 1033, 1036-37 (5th Cir. 1974). Further, the court concluded that Doe's alleged Eighth Amendment violations were "within the types of actions by prison officials that may, if proved, warrant injunctive relief."

On remand, the court directed the district court to determine "whether the relief sought would work an intolerable burden on governmental functions, outweighing any consideration of private harm." In making this assessment, the court explained that "the burden to be considered is the burden that the record demonstrates would be imposed by the relief requested by this Plaintiff and the harm to be considered is that harm that the record demonstrates this Plaintiff would suffer absent the requested relief."

The judgment of the district court was accordingly vacated, and the cause was remanded for further proceedings. See: Doe v. Wooten, 376 Fed.Appx. 883, 2010 WL 1645136 (C.A.11 (Ga.)).

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Related legal case

Doe v. Wooten