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En Banc Eleventh Circuit Holds Prisoners Can Seek Punitive Damages Without Physical Injury

The court’s en banc ruling was issued on April 9, 2021 in an appeal brought by Florida prisoner Conraad L. Hoever. He filed a civil rights action that alleged in 2013 guards at Franklin Correctional Institution subjected him to harassment and threats of physical violence in retaliation for filing grievances about his mistreatment. Acting pro se, Hoever defended attempts to have the case dismissed and presented his First Amendment claim to the jury.

Witnesses testified to the threats made by guards who stated, “If you keep writing grievances, I promise you that the next 11 years is [sic] going to be a heartache for you…. We’ve been killing inmates here for a long time and nobody can do a damn thing to us.” Hoever was also threatened with being placed in confinement and starved to death. Which is not an idle threat as PLN has previously reported on Florida prisoners being beaten, burned and starved to death with impunity by staff.

The jury returned a verdict finding that Hoever’s First Amendment rights were violated seven times. It awarded him one dollar in nominal damages. That was the only relief permitted, for the district court followed the holdings in Harris v. Garner (Harris II), 216 F.3d 970 (11th Cir. 2000)(en banc) and Al-Amin v. Smith, 637 F.3d 1192 (11th Cir. 2011). Those precedents held that section 1997e(e) bars punitive damages absent a showing of physical injury.

Following the jury verdict, Hoever appealed, challenging the dismissal of his claim for punitive damages. The Eleventh Circuit granted en banc review. Amicus briefs were filed by the Human Rights Defense Center, as well as American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Prosperity Foundation, Cato Institute, The Center for Access to Justice, Florida Justice Institute, and Southern Center for Human Rights. HRDC was ably represented by the Davis Wright Tremaine law firm in Seattle.

The majority began their analysis by examining the text of section 1997e(e). In sum, that section of the Prison Litigation Reform Act provides that a prisoner may not bring a civil action “for mental or emotional injury suffered while in custody without a prior showing of physical injury or the commission of a sexual act.”

When “[a]ccounting for the full phrase,” the court majority concluded that “§ 1997e(e) bars only requests for compensatory damages stemming from purely mental or emotional harm.” A proper understanding is that “§ 1997e(e) does not bar punitive damages in the absence of physical injury.”

The court distinguished the difference between compensatory and punitive damages. Compensatory damages provide redress to correct an injury. Punitive damages do not compensate plaintiffs for injuries suffered; they are imposed on a defendant for deterrence and punishment for egregious misconduct.

Precedent from the Supreme Court about nominal damages supports the reasoning that punitive damages do not require the showing of a compensable injury. For violation of constitutional rights is “actionable for nominal damages without proof of actual injury.” Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247, 266 (1978).

The majority said that on remand Hoever “should be given the opportunity to obtain punitive damages” along with the award of “nominal damages.”

The court acknowledged its precedent on this issue was incorrect. That “precedent foreclosed an important remedy intended to punish and deter an intentional violation of the rights of prisoners.” Overturning that precedent and adopting the new understanding aligns the Eleventh Circuit with the First, Second, Third, Fifth, Eighth, and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeals in holding that “§ 1997e(e) permits claims for punitive damages without a physical injury requirement.” See: Hoever v. Marks, 993 F.3d 1353 (11th Cir. 2021)(en banc). 

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Related legal case

Hoever v. Marks