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Sixth Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Federal Prisoner’s Bivens Claim, Discusses Inmate Accident Compensation Act

On May 11, 2016, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court’s dismissal of a former prisoner’s civil rights action. Stephen Ted Koprowski, who was incarcerated at USP Ft. McCreary in Pine Knot, Kentucky, sued after he fell off a step ladder and injured his back while working in the prison’s kitchen in November 2009.

As was clear from the facts of this case, a prisoner with a work-related injury faces many challenges. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) doesn’t pay many visits to prison work sites, where equipment is often old and outdated, safety precautions are minimal, and supervisors are unsympathetic to prisoners’ working conditions and forced labor.

After enduring the all-too-routine indifference to his medical condition by Bureau of Prisons (BOP) staff, Koprowski fought back, filing administrative complaints. He alleged that prison medical staff had “delayed taking X-rays and refused to perform a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (‘MRI’) scan, which would have shown that he had broken his back.”

He was also subjected to harassment, retaliation and disciplinary charges, claiming that “staff threatened to send him to solitary confinement unless he surrendered a wheelchair he had been using; when he complied with their order to walk, the resulting pain and fatigue caused him to be bedridden for several hours.” Further, he was allegedly “sent to a segregation unit – ‘the hole’ – as punishment for being unable to walk to his work assignment.”

After finally being X-rayed, Koprowski was diagnosed with a fractured vertebra and subsequently filed suit alleging violations of his federal civil rights.

The district court dismissed his complaint, finding that the little-used Inmate Accident Compensation Act (IACA), 18 U.S.C. § 4126, a form of worker’s compensation with limited damages, was his sole remedy. The Sixth Circuit disagreed, holding that civil rights actions brought by federal prisoners, known as Bivens claims, were also a viable remedy, citing Smith v. United States, 561 F.3d 1090 (10th Cir. 2009) and Carlson v. Green, 446 U.S. 14 (1980).

According to the appellate court, “The no-fault nature of the IACA strongly suggests that it is an inadequate alternative to a Bivens action.... In Carlson, the Supreme Court explicitly found that no special factors suggested that an Eighth Amendment Bivens remedy would be inappropriate.” First, federal prison officials “do not enjoy such independent status in our constitutional scheme as to suggest that judicially created remedies against them might be inappropriate.” Second, “qualified immunity protects federal prison officials such that the availability of a Bivens remedy would not overly interfere with their ability to do their jobs.”

The Court of Appeals also noted the different purposes of the IACA and Bivens actions, focusing on issues of accountability: “The lack of accountability is important when determining whether an alternative scheme protects the constitutional interest at stake, thereby precluding a Bivens remedy.... The purpose of Bivens is to deter individual federal officers from committing constitutional violations.... It is almost axiomatic that the threat of damages has a deterrent effect, surely particularly so when the individual official faces personal financial liability.”

Bivens actions, unlike the IACA or federal tort claims, are directed at individual employees or agents of the federal government, who are personally responsible for any judgment entered against them. “The threat of litigation and liability will adequately deter federal officers for Bivens purposes no matter that they enjoy qualified immunity, are indemnified by the employing agency or entity, or are acting pursuant to an entity’s policy,” the Court of Appeals explained, noting “the IACA does not adequately deter unconstitutional conduct because prison officials have no skin in the game under the workers’ compensation scheme.”

The Sixth Circuit reversed the dismissal of Koprowski’s Eighth Amendment Bivens claim, finding that the “IACA does not displace this otherwise available claim just because the alleged unconstitutional conduct occurred in the context of a prison workplace injury,” but affirmed the dismissal of his other claims. On remand, the district court was invited to rule on allegations of “disconcerting” discovery-related misconduct by defense counsel, who reportedly failed to provide Koprowski with copies of his own medical records. The case remains pending. See: Koprowski v. Baker, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 8633 (6th Cir. 2016). 

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Related legal case

Koprowski v. Baker