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Denial of Contraceptive Pill to Prisoner States Cause of Action

A U.S. District Court in Florida has held that the denial of a prisoner’s access to a contraceptive pill to prevent pregnancy, based on a jail employee’s religious beliefs, states a cause of action.

The plaintiff in the case, identified only as R.W., was raped on January 27, 2007 by an unknown assailant. After she reported the crime to the Tampa Police Department, R.W. was taken to a Rape Crisis Center. There she was given two anti-conception pills following an examination. The first, at the doctor’s directions, was taken immediately; the second was to be taken twelve hours later.

A police officer then returned R.W. to the scene of the crime. During the investigation, it was discovered that she had an outstanding arrest warrant for failure to appear and failure to pay restitution. She was arrested and taken to the Hillsborough County Jail.

R.W. remained in jail overnight and the next morning advised Michele Spinelli, an employee with Armor Correctional Health Services, the jail’s private medical contractor, about the rape and her need to take the prescribed anti-conception pill to ensure she did not become pregnant. In response, “Spinelli told the Plaintiff that Spinelli would not give her the pill because it was against her [Spinelli’s] religious beliefs.”

Just prior to her release on January 29, 2007, R.W. was allowed to take the pill, though it was unclear who gave her permission. R.W. did not become pregnant as a result of the rape.

She filed suit, and her second and third amended complaints alleged violations of her rights to privacy and equal protection by Spinelli and Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee. The defendants filed motions to dismiss.

The district court dismissed the claims against Sheriff Gee, as R.W. had alleged insufficient facts to demonstrate municipal liability or to show that Gee had implemented a policy concerning prescribed contraceptive medication. Some of the claims against Spinelli, however, were sufficient to survive the motions to dismiss.

The court held that the defendants’ argument – that Spinelli’s actions did not place an undue burden on R.W.’s right to terminate the pregnancy – were misplaced. Although restrictions on the right to an abortion are unconstitutional where they pose an undue burden, “the ‘undue burden’ analysis is inapposite to the question of contraception where a woman seeks to prevent – not to terminate – her pregnancy.” Thus, R.W.’s privacy claim could proceed.

The district court also allowed an equal protection claim to proceed, though it was skeptical about the facts alleged to support it. To establish a discriminatory purpose, the decision-maker must have “selected or reaffirmed a particular course of action at least in part ‘because of’ not merely ‘in spite of’ its adverse effects upon an identifiable group.” While R.W.’s attorney advanced an equal protection claim on the basis of gender by stating that “Spinelli would have, as she had in the past, allowed a male [prisoner] seeking a gender change to take the same [contraceptive] medication,” the court questioned the validity of that assertion.

Such claims, the district court noted, could subject counsel to sanctions if they did not have evidentiary support. Nonetheless, at this preliminary stage of the case the court was required to accept the facts alleged in the complaint as true.

In ruling on the defendants’ motion to dismiss several claims in R.W.’s third amended complaint, the district court further permitted a municipal liability claim against Spinelli to proceed on the basis that she was a final policy-maker: “Given that some entity must set policy for the government in each situation, Plaintiff has rendered plausible the claim that Spinelli was designated the final policy-maker with respect to her decision to withhold anti-conceptive medication for religious reasons.”

The court made clear, however, that if R.W. eventually prevailed but failed to prove actual damages, she would only be entitled to “nominal damages not to exceed one dollar.” The district court had previously dismissed R.W.’s state law claims. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment in July 2013, which remains pending. See: R.W. v. Spinelli, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Fla.), Case No. 8:11-cv-01326-EAK-AEP.

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Related legal case

R.W. v. Spinelli