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Second Circuit Takes Back $20,000 Emotional Damage Award from Former Federal Prisoner in New York

by Ben Tschirhart

On August 16, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the verdict of a federal jury, stripping $20,000 in damages awarded to a former federal prisoner in New York for mental and emotional injury suffered during confinement. In its decision, the Court made an about-face from its earlier ruling in the case, when it was ready to find a constitutional violation from the prisoner’s conditions of confinement. In backtracking from that, the Court appeared to yield to a recent decision by a new, more reactionary majority on the Supreme Court, which explicitly warned the federal judiciary not to extend governmental liability in civil rights cases.

The case at hand traced back to 2008, when Ellis Walker was sent to the Federal Correctional Institution in Ray Brook and placed in cell 127 — a space built for four men but holding six. There, for almost two and a half years, he was subjected to the various discomforts and indignities which accompany such close living quarters in prison.

At 6’4” and 255 pounds, Walker had difficulty fitting in his assigned bunk. Overcrowding and a lack of adequate cleaning supplies left the cell floor splattered with food, urine, and feces. He complained repeatedly to prison staff, including the warden, but his requests to be moved to a different cell went ignored. A month after he commenced legal action in March 2011, Walker was finally moved.

When his case reached the federal court for the Northern District of New York in 2012, defendants secured dismissal of his claims. But the Second Circuit reinstated them the following year. Citing Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337 (1981), the Court reasoned that Walker plausibly alleged “conditions that, perhaps alone and certainly in combination, deprived him of a minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities.” [See: PLN, May 2014, p.21.]

Back at the district court, Walker’s case was at last heard by a jury in 2020. Though not finding he suffered any physical injury, the jury agreed that prison officials were deliberately indifferent to the emotional distress they subjected him to. Proceeding under the theory of governmental liability laid out in Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), the jury awarded Walker $20,000 in compensatory damages. Defendants filed an appeal.

Before that could be decided, though, a new decision was handed down by the Supreme Court on June 8, 2022. In that ruling, the justices admonished another federal circuit not to make any further extension of governmental liability under Bivens, declaring that “prescribing a cause of action is a job for Congress, not the courts.” See: Egbert v. Boule, 142 S. Ct. 1793 (2022).

Taking up Walker’s case again, the Second Circuit summarized Defendants’ argument: “[T]hat a Bivens damages remedy is not available for such claims, or (b) that even if such a remedy is available, Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity.”

With the ghost of Egbert hanging over the Court, would it back-track forthrightly, like the Ninth Circuit did in a similar case? [See: PLN, Apr. 2023, p.32.] No. Dodging any Bivens consideration, the Second Circuit pointed out instead that the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e, “precludes a prisoner’s recovery of compensatory damages for mental or emotional injury resulting from his conditions of confinement absent a showing of physical injury.” Since the jury found no physical injury, the Court said, “Defendants are entitled to judgment as a matter of law” under PLRA.

So why didn’t the Court say that before? It earlier sent the case back to the district court to find whether a constitutional violation arose from extreme temperatures, sleep deprivation and unsanitary conditions. The district court obliged, based on the jury’s findings of those conditions. But now the Second Circuit said the district court was wrong; no matter the jury’s findings, an overcrowded cell “does not violate the Eighth Amendment unless it is accompanied by some treatment that ‘deprive[s] inmates of the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities,’” the Court said, quoting Rhodes again. Moreover, even “if a constitutional violation by these Defendants was proven, their entitlement to qualified immunity [QI] foreclosed an award of nominal damages.”

For those keeping track, that’s the same case the Court cited in 2013 to arrive at an opposite conclusion, and that’s the same QI which was available to Defendants then.

“[T]he district court appears to have [wrongly] assumed that the jury’s verdict established that Walker’s Eighth Amendment rights had been violated,” the Court offered by way of explanation. But a “dismissal on [QI] as a matter of law should be granted if … the facts do not support [that] finding,” the Court declared.

Walker had also asked for injunctive relief back in 2011. But since he was released in 2016, those claims were moot, the Court said. With that, the district court’s judgment was reversed and the case remanded, with instructions to enter dismissal of Walker’s claims, awarding costs to neither party. Walker was represented by attorney Megan Behrman of Latham & Watkins in New York City. See: Walker v. Schult, 45 F.4th 598 (2d Cir. 2022).

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