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Sixth Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Prisoner's Sexual Orientation Discrimination Suit

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a district court's dismissal of a prisoner's lawsuit alleging discrimination based on his sexual orientation.

Ricky Davis, a gay, insulin-dependent diabetic Michigan state prisoner, was screened, medically cleared and hired by an off-site public-works program.

He was the only openly gay participant in the program, and contended that work crew supervisors treated him differently than other prisoners due to his sexual orientation. Guards "did not want to strip search him because he was a homosexual and ... they would make 'under the breath' remarks when selected to do so." The guards also ridiculed, belittled and "ma[d]e a spectacle" of him.

Other insulin-dependent diabetics participated in the public-works program, and supervisors were given honey packets to remedy problems related to low blood sugar.

When Davis complained of low blood sugar on December 2, 2009, a guard refused to directly hand him a honey packet due to "animus toward or discomfort with him as an openly gay man." The guard instead had another prisoner give Davis the packet.

Davis was fine after consuming the honey, but supervisors ordered him to see a nurse. His blood sugar levels were normal and the nurse determined "that the episode had been a 'false alarm.'" Even so, prison health unit manager Scharfnaar ordered Davis to be removed from the public-works program. She claimed he was being removed because he was diabetic and she "wasn't going to be responsible if something happened to [Davis] while [he was] out on work assignment."

Davis filed a grievance alleging "that the public-works officers persuaded Scharfnaar to use concerns about his diabetic condition as a pretext for removing him from the public-works program." He also claimed "that other similarly situated non-homosexual, insulin-dependent diabetic inmates were allowed to continue working in the public-works program." Prison officials denied his grievance.

Davis then filed suit, claiming he was removed from the work program due to his sexual orientation in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. On initial screening under 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c) and 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2) and 1915A, the district court dismissed his lawsuit, holding that 1) since he had failed to identify other similarly-situated prisoners, his equal protection claim "failed under a rational basis review," and 2) his claim was barred by Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture, 553 U.S. 591, 603-05 (2008).

Davis appealed and the Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that he had "alleged facts that, taken as true, state a plausible claim that the defendants removed him from the public-works program because of an anti-gay animus." Therefore, the district court's dismissal of the case for failure to state a claim was improper.

"Even if Davis had failed to include allegations about similarly-situated prisoners," the Court of Appeals held that "his complaint still should not have been dismissed at the pleadings stage," citing Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 511-12 (2002) and Johnson v. Johnson, 385 F.3d 503, 530-531 (5th Cir. 2004).

Finding that "the district court improperly grouped 'class-of-one' claims with other types of claims subject to rational basis scrutiny" in erroneously holding that Engquist barred Davis' equal protection claim, the Sixth Circuit concluded that "a claim alleging discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, such as Davis's, thus should not be characterized as a 'class-of-one' claim."

Since Davis had "asserted a traditional, class-based discrimination claim and not a 'class-of-one' equal protection claim," the appellate court held that Engquist was not applicable and the dismissal of his complaint on that basis was improper. See: Davis v. Prison Health Services, 679 F.3d 433 (6th Cir. 2012).

Following remand, Davis voluntarily dismissed his suit so it could be re-filed after he was released from prison, thereby avoiding the requirements and restrictions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).

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Related legal case

Davis v. Prison Health Services