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Sixth Circuit Holds PLRA’s Physical Injury Rule Inapplicable to First Amendment Claims

On June 1, 2015, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held “that deprivations of First Amendment rights are themselves injuries, apart from any mental, emotional, or physical injury that might also arise from the deprivation, and that [42 U.S.C.] § 1997e(e) does not bar all relief for injuries to First Amendment rights.”

The Court’s ruling came in a civil rights action filed by Michigan prisoner Kevin King. It was the fourth time his case was before the appellate court; in the third appeal, the Sixth Circuit held that prison officials Chuck Zamiara, Sharon Wells and Curtis Chaffee had retaliated against King for participating in a class-action lawsuit challenging personal property policies in Michigan prisons.

On remand, the district court had entered judgment in favor of King and awarded him $1,475 in compensatory damages plus $2,212.50 in attorney fees. [See: PLN, July 2013, p.20]. The court denied his requests for punitive damages and injunctive relief.

Both parties appealed.

The first issue addressed by the Sixth Circuit was the applicability of § 1997e(e) to First Amendment claims. That section of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) provides that a federal civil action may not be brought by a prisoner for “mental or emotional injury suffered while in custody without a prior showing of physical injury.” A majority of circuits has evaluated that language and concluded that, regardless of the constitutional violation, if the plaintiff does not allege a physical injury then § 1997e(e) prohibits an award of compensatory damages.

“However, this interpretation does not accord with the statutory language: The statute provides that a prisoner may not bring a civil action for mental or emotional injury unless he has also suffered a physical injury,” the Sixth Circuit wrote. “Therefore, the plain language of the statute does not bar claims for constitutional injury that do not also involve physical injury.”

Consequently, the Court of Appeals held King was properly awarded compensatory damages. Such an award “must focus on the real injury sustained and not on either the abstract value of the constitutional right at issue or the importance of the right in our system of government,” the Court explained. Under that standard, “courts have allowed plaintiffs to recover presumed damages for actual injuries caused by constitutional violations that are ‘likely to have occurred’ but difficult to measure, even when the injury claimed is neither physical harm nor mental or emotional distress.”

King was subjected to a retaliatory transfer to the general population at a more restrictive prison, “where he still had at least limited opportunities to exercise his First Amendment rights and interact with other prisoners, as opposed to segregation, which completely extinguishes those rights.” The appellate court affirmed the $1,475 compensatory damage award, finding it was not an abuse of discretion.

The denial of punitive damages, however, constituted error because the district court had found the defendants were not “motivated by evil motive, intent, or callous indifference to King’s protected rights.”

The Sixth Circuit disagreed.

“When a defendant retaliates against a plaintiff’s exercise of his First Amendment rights, the defendant necessarily acts with the purpose of infringing upon the plaintiff’s federally protected rights,” the appellate court wrote. “Thus, a defendant who has been found liable for First Amendment retaliation has engaged in conduct that warrants consideration of an award of punitive damages.”

The Court of Appeals noted that “The deterrent value of punitive damages is particularly important under these circumstances because a prisoner may not seek to deter prison officials from violating his rights through the ordinary mechanism of compensatory damages.” The Court further held the district court’s denial of injunctive relief was proper, though the award of King’s attorney fees may need to be reconsidered should punitive damages be awarded on remand.

Finally, the Sixth Circuit found the district court had misapplied the PLRA’s attorney fees provision when “it failed to charge a portion of the attorney fees against King’s judgment. The PLRA provides that ‘[w]henever a monetary judgment is awarded ... a portion of the judgment (not to exceed 25 percent) shall be applied to satisfy the amount of attorney’s fees awarded against the defendant.’ 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(2).”

A petition for writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court was denied on January 11, 2016, and the parties agreed to settle the case the following month for a total of $11,451.30. See: King v. Zamiara, 788 F.3d 207 (6th Cir. 2015), cert. denied. 

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Related legal case

King v. Zamiara,