11th Circuit Tells Sexually Assaulted Transgender Georgia Prisoner: PREA Violations Aren’t Per Se Eighth Amendment Violations
by Jacob Barrett
On February 2, 2022, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to issue a writ of certiorari to hear her appeal, a transgender Georgia prisoner was thwarted in her attempt to hold state prison officials liable for assaults she suffered at three state prisons for men. See: Cox v. Nobles, 142 S. Ct. 1178 (2022).
That left standing an earlier ruling against her by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit on October 18, 2021, which was notable for its conclusion that a plaintiff prisoner cannot sustain an allegation of an Eighth Amendment violation even with proof of a violation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), 42 U.S.C. ch. 147 § 15601 et seq.
The prisoner, to whom the courts referred only by his birth name, Ronald Cox, alleged that she was attacked by fellow prisoners at the three lockups as she was transferred from Autry State Prison to Central State Prison to Augusta State Medical Prison. During that time, Cox received estrogen injections, causing her to present with female features. That made her a target for sexual and other physical abuse she was forced to endure, she claimed.
With the aid of Mableton attorney McNeill Stokes, Cox filed suit in federal court for the Southern District of Georgia under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, accusing officials with the state Department of Corrections (DOC) of violating her Eighth Amendment guarantee of protection from cruel and unusual punishment.
Specifically, Cox said prison officials knew she was transgender and presented as female, and that they knew this would put her at risk of assault from other prisoners. By failing to protect her from the assaults she then endured, she claimed they showed deliberate indifference to that risk, which the Supreme Court held could be an Eighth Amendment violation in Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994).
In that decision, the high court set out a two-prong test for such violations, holding that defendant prison officials must have both objective and subjective knowledge of the risk allegedly ignored in order to be held liable. [See: PLN, July 1994, p.1.] The district court then analyzed Cox’s claim and determined that she failed to allege facts sufficient to meet the Farmer standard. So it granted qualified immunity to defendants and dismissed her complaint. Cox appealed.
Taking up the case, the Eleventh Circuit began by noting Cox had filed PREA complaints in the first two prisons. However, the Court continued, doing so didn’t necessarily put defendant DOC officials on notice that she faced a specific risk. So all claims related to those two periods of Cox’s incarceration were dismissed.
At the third prison, where officials relocated Cox after a fight with her cellmate, they had subjective knowledge of the risk he posed to her before he then attacked her, the Court conceded. However, they still lacked objective knowledge — that is, Cox failed to connect the dots sufficiently in her complaint between what officials did and the attack she then suffered.
“[T]here are no allegations to suggest that in relocating Cox to another … cell in the same dorm [that the defendant] knew that Cox and [her attacker] would encounter each other in an unsupervised setting,” the Court said. “Nor are there other allegations that would give us insight into the reasonableness of [the defendant’s] actions.”
Pointing to Mosley v. Zachery, 966 F.3d 1265 (11th Cir. 2020), the Court said that “separating prisoners is among the reasonable responses a prison official can take in appropriate circumstances.” Therefore, the Court concluded that Cox had not “adequately alleged that [the defendant] acted in objectively unreasonable manner.”
As for Cox’s Eighth Amendment claims against DOC officials based on their alleged failure to comply with PREA, the district court had rejected what it saw as an attempt at an end-run around Farmer’s two-prong Eighth Amendment analysis. The Eleventh Circuit agreed.
“We find no authority to support the proposition that a litigant can circumvent long-established Eighth Amendment jurisprudence by alleging a violation of the PREA in a conclusory … fashion,” the Court said. Thus the district court’s dismissal was affirmed. See: Cox v. Nobles, 15 F.4th 1350 (11th Cir. 2021).
PREA is a law passed by elected officials, while the Farmer test was laid out by appointed justices. Curiously, for all its concern about usurping the authority of a state legislature to enact laws — such as those that restrict abortion — the Supreme Court here passed up a chance to rein in the Eleventh Circuit from doing just that.
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Related legal case
Cox v. Nobles
|15 F.4th 1350 (11th Cir. 2021)
|Court of Appeals
|Appeals Court Edition