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SCOTUS Ruling Forces Ninth Circuit U-Turn on Damages Suit by Federal Prisoner in California “Snitch Jacketed” by Guard

by Kevin W. Bliss

On October 11, 2022, the U.S.Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed dismissal of California prisoner’s suit alleging he was assaulted because a guard labeled him a “snitch.” The ruling represents a reversal of the Court’s previous judgment in the case, which found that damages could be allowed under a modest extension of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S.388 (1971). The turnaround was forced by a more recent high court ruling explicitly limiting the ability of federal courts to grant the sort of extension that the Ninth Circuit did.

The case was brought by a federal prisoner, Marcellas Hoffman, over an assault that occurred at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atwater, California. Hoffman worked as a cook in the prison kitchen, where he made a proposal for improving food service operations to officials with the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). One of them, guard Timothy Preston, allegedly resented this so much that he set out on a campaign to label Hoffman a “snitch,” attempting to have him physically assaulted by other prisoners and even offering them bribes to do so. On May 16, 2016, Hoffman was assaulted by Emmanuel Ward as a direct result of Preston’s actions, he said.

Hoffman filed a federal complaint seeking monetary damages against Preston on October 27, 2016. Proceeding under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, he claimed that Preston’s actions violated the Eighth Amendment guarantee of freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California dismissed the claim, stating that the Supreme Court allowed damages under Bivens only for three types of civil rights claims: a violation of the Fourth Amendment guarantee of freedom from unreasonable search and seizure by federal officials; a due-process violation under the Fifth Amendment for gender discrimination by a member of the U.S. Congress; and a violation of the Eighth Amendment guarantee of freedom from cruel and unusual punishment by failing to provide a prisoner adequate medical care.

With the aid of Washington, DC attorneys from Covington & Burling LLP and Samuel Weiss of Rights Behind Bars, Hoffman appealed. The Ninth Circuit zeroed in on the last of these three Bivens extensions in Ziglar v. Abbasi, 137 S. Ct. 1843 (2017). Compared to that case, the Court said, letting Hoffman press his claim for damages against BOP officials was but a modest extension – especially since there was no other alternative remedy to punish Preston and serve as a deterrent to others.

Allowing monetary damages would also not unduly affect the orderly operation of the prison system, the Ninth Circuit added. Plus it found no legislative intent to preclude monetary damages in similar situations. So on February 28, 2022, the Court ruled that Hoffman’s monetary claims against Preston could proceed. It reversed the district court’s judgment and remanded the case for further review.

Then on June 8, 2022, the Supreme Court decided Egbert v. Boule, 142 S. Ct. 1793 (2022). In that case, the high court said the Ninth Circuit “plainly erred” when it recognized a cause of action under Bivens that had not already been granted. “[P]rescribing a cause of action is a job for Congress, not the courts,” the Supreme Court justices chided.

After that, the Ninth Circuit ordered new briefs to assess the impact of the decision on Hoffman’s case. The parties obliged. The Court then overruled itself and substituted a new opinion. Since it was “clear that expanding the Bivens remedy is now a ‘disfavored’ judicial activity,” the Court said (quoting Ziglar), it was up to Congress to authorize a remedy for the prisoner – “and there are ‘rational reason[s],’ [quoting Egbert] why it might not.” See: Hoffman v. Preston, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 28228 (9th Cir.).

Of course, the Supreme Court itself is tacking in a more reactionary direction with rulings like Egbert, so the Ninth Circuit can perhaps be forgiven for having trouble tracking its course. What is harder to forgive is the bind in which this leaves prisoners like Hoffman; even after they prove their civil rights have been violated, they are precluded from seeking damages. That makes the whole legal effort largely worthless, which is perhaps just what the high court intends.

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