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Third Circuit Reinstates Claims by Immigration Detainee in GEO-Operated Prison Seeking to Marry U.S. Citizen

Brian A. Davis, an immigration detainee being held at a Pennsylvania private prison that houses foreign nationals awaiting deportation or deportation proceedings, sought permission to marry his U.S. citizen fiancée, Fredericka K. Bedford. They complied with the prison’s regulations, which exceeded the BOP’s, but permission was denied.

The couple filed a federal civil rights lawsuit pursuant to Bevins, 42 U.S.D. §§ 1981, 1983, 1985(3) and 2000d, and other state and federal laws, alleging they were denied their constitutional right to be married because of unlawful discrimination. The district court adopted without analysis a magistrate judge’s report recommending dismissal of all claims. The report reasoned that GEO employees were not federal actors and the two federal officials who were sued were not properly served.

On appeal, the Third Circuit held that the district court erred when it failed to undertake the required two-step process to determine whether it should grant an extension of time to effect service. It also failed to take into account plaintiffs’ substantial attempts to serve the federal defendants.

The appellate court was “deeply skeptical” of the trial court’s conclusion that GEO employees were not federal actors who could be sued pursuant to Bivens. It noted that it had held the opposite in a previous case. However, it determined that plaintiffs were asking for an unsupportable extension of Bivens liability—without any analysis of Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1972), which established prisoners’ constitutional right to marry.

The court noted that this was an attempt to apply Bevins in a new context and that the U.S. Supreme Court had “never recognized, or been asked to recognize, a Bivens remedy for infringement of the right to marry.”

Given the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996, which Congress passed after the decision in Bivens, and the existence of alternative remedies, such as injunctive relief or relief under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, it held there were “sound reasons to think Congress might doubt the efficacy or necessity of a damages remedy” in this case. Therefore, no extension of Bivens was warranted.

The trial court also erred in dismissing claims of conspiracy to deny equal protection under 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3) on the grounds that the complaint alleged a purely private conspiracy. The complaint alleged that GEO officials and federal officials conspired together to prevent any prisoner at the private prison from marrying and that the conspiracy benefited both parties. Thus, a basic premise of the dismissal was erroneous.

The trial court correctly dismissed claims brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1981, 1983, and 2000d, as they are limited to claims against persons acting under the authority of state law, not federal law, or based on discrimination due to color, race, or national origin, which was not alleged.

Related legal case

Davis v. Samuels