In a case that has drawn interest from a wide range of
civil-liberties groups, a federal appeals court ruled Friday that a state
inmate can seek punitive damages in a lawsuit that alleged threats by guards at
Florida Correctional Institution violated his First Amendment rights.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Conraad
Hoever can seek punitive damages after a jury found that FCI officers violated his rights by threatening him with
retaliation after he filed grievances.
The full appeals court decided to take up the case after a
three-judge panel last year ruled Hoever was barred from seeking punitive
damages. Fridays ruling said the Atlanta-based appeals court has been an
outlier in its interpretation of a more than two-decades-old federal law known
as the Prison Litigation Reform Act.
While the jury ruled that Hoevers First Amendment rights
had been violated, he was awarded only $1 in nominal damages and was blocked
from seeking punitive damages. Fridays ruling said the law does not bar
punitive damages in the absence of physical injury, with punitive damages
intended to punish defendants for misconduct.
A jury found that Mr. Hoevers First Amendment rights were
violated seven times, said the ruling written by Chief Judge William Pryor and
Judge Beverly Martin and joined by eight other judges. For those seven
violations, he received only one dollar in nominal damages. On remand, Mr.
Hoever should be given an opportunity to obtain punitive damages too.
Hoever filed the lawsuit in 2013, alleging correctional
officers threatened him with such things as physical harm and solitary
confinement for filing grievances. A jury ruled against officers Robert Marks
and Caleb Paul, and the three-judge panel of the appeals court upheld that
judgment last year.
Last week’s decision cited statements by a FCI correctional officer to Hoever that “If you keep on writing grievances, I promise you the next 11 years is going to be a heartache for you. You need to stop writing grievances right now or well make sure that you stop… If you write another grievance,… Ill take you right now to confinement. Ill let you go only if you promise never to write a grievance again.
The original jury also heard testimony “about other occasions in which an officer threatened, ‘Weve been killing inmates here for a long time and nobody can do a damn thing to us,’ and a threat to ‘take [Hoever] to confinement and starve [him] to death’ if he filed additional grievances” read the decision by the full appeals court
In a somewhat-unusual move, the court
decided to take up the punitive-damages issue — a move known as considering
the issue en banc. A wide range of groups, including the American Civil
Liberties Union, the Florida Justice Institute, the Americans for Prosperity
Foundation and the Cato Institute joined together in a friend-of-the-court
brief backing Hoever.
A jury found that correctional officers repeatedly
threatened to kill Mr. Hoever in retaliation for filing grievances about
institutional misconduct and mistreatment, violating his First Amendment
rights, the brief, filed in December, said. Applying this circuits
precedent, the trial court concluded he was barred from receiving punitive
damages by the Prison Litigation Reform Act. This wrongful outcome not only
deprives Mr. Hoever of just compensation for his injuries but also allows
countless abuses of citizens constitutional rights to go virtually
Fridays ruling said the law bars Hoever from seeking
compensatory damages for mental or emotional injuries he alleged, but it allows
claims for punitive damages without a physical injury requirement.
Compensatory damages are designed to provide compensation for injuries or
losses, as opposed to punishing defendants.
But in a dissenting opinion, Judge Kevin Newsom took issue
with the distinction drawn between compensatory damages and punitive damages.
In particular, the dispositive question, to my eye, is
simply whether an inmate-plaintiffs action concerns mental or emotional
injury, as opposed to some other kind of injury, wrote Newsom in a dissent
joined fully by Judge Elizabeth Branch and partly by Judge Robert Luck. To the
extent that it does, I would hold — contra the court — that (the law)
precludes him from recovering either compensatory or punitive damages unless he
has made the statutorily required showing of physical injury.
A brief filed by Attorney General Ashley Moodys office said
Hoever was convicted in 2010 of lewd and lascivious molestation on a
15-year-old student while he was a math teacher. The state Department of
Corrections website indicates the case stemmed from Broward County and that he
is now an inmate at Union Correctional Institution.