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$150,000 Settlement after Michigan DOC Discriminates Against HIV Positive Prisoner

by Kevin Bliss

John Dorn sued the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) for subjecting him to harsher disciplinary penalties than other prisoners simply because he was HIV positive. 

Represented by attorneys Chris E. Davis and Mark A. Cody from Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service, Inc. and Kyle A. Palazzolo and Scott A. Schoettes with the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Dorn alleged that MDOC Policy Directive (MPD) 03.04.120 and Michigan Statute 791.267(3) violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Rehabilitation Act, as well as his constitutional right to due process. 

Dorn was housed in a Level I facility that afforded him such privileges as a paid work assignment, law library access, educational and religious programs, daily telephone use and regular visits, because he was located close to his mother. 

While he was there, two prisoners accused Dorn of engaging in a sexual act with another prisoner, Jerry Piotter, Jr. The two and Piotter signed statements that said Piotter was consensually performing oral sex on Dorn, but not to the point of ejaculation.

Since Dorn was HIV positive, Michigan law directed that if he was found guilty of sexual activity that could potentially transmit the virus, he would be placed in segregation for an indeterminate period of time. Dorn was reclassified to segregation the day of the incident; he was found guilty of engaging in sexual conduct on May 8, 2012 and received 10 days in detention plus 20 days loss of privileges. Piotter, on the other hand, received 30 days loss of privileges and no detention.

Dorn’s indefinite segregation was affirmed on May 10, 2012, and he spent a full year in segregation at the Oaks Correctional Facility (OCF). He lost all of his privileges and was locked down 23 hours a day, could not use the phone except for emergencies, did not have access to a law library to work on his pending case, could not attend educational or religious programs, and received few visits because his mother was unable to travel to that prison.

Upon his release from segregation at OCF, Dorn was transferred to Carson City, a Level V facility, where he alleged conditions were no better than those at OCF.

He filed suit against the MDOC claiming discrimination due to his HIV status, which was considered a disability. He also claimed that his right to due process was violated because the MDOC’s policy directive specified “behavior which could transmit HIV,” and Dorn’s viral count had been so low that medical professionals agreed the chances for transmittal would be almost non-existent; thus, Dorn did not meet the criteria set forth in MPD 03.04.120. He also contended the MDOC’s policy violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the ADA by imposing harsher punishment on prisoners who were HIV positive than on those who did not have that medical condition. 

Michigan prison officials agreed to settle the case and make “substantive changes” to their policies and practices, and to reassess the status of other HIV positive prisoners held in segregation. Further, the state agreed to pay $150,000 in damages to Dorn. The settlement was reached in November 2018. See: Dorn v. Michigan Department of Corrections, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Mich.), Case No. 1:15-cv-00359-PLM. 


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Related legal case

Dorn v. Michigan Department of Corrections