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Supreme Court Blocks Lawsuit Against Private Prison Employees

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on January 12, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In an 8-1 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that inmates do not have a right to file a federal lawsuit against private prison employees for alleged 8th Amendment violations.

The case -- Minneci v. Pollard -- follows up on a 2001 decision in which the Supreme Court barred constitutional lawsuits against federally-contracted private prison companies. As in that ruling, the Court has decided that federal inmates may only seek damages from private prison employees in state court.

State tort law -- not constitutional law -- is their only option.

This seems like a bizarre ruling given the constitutional implications. But the truth is that there is no statute that allows victims to sue federal officials who violate their constitutional rights. The closest statute is section 1983, which only authorizes such actions against state agents.

But in a 1971 case known as Bivens, the Supreme Court created such a right.  There is an "implied cause of action" that allows courts to order federal agents to pay damages for constitutional violations.

However, Bivens only grants a limited right. It only applies when there is no "alternative, existing process for protecting [a constitutionally recognized] interest."

Richard Lee Pollard claims that he was not provided with adequate medical treatment in a privately run federal prison. It caused him further pain, and left his arms permanently damaged.

He may not have an explicit federal cause of action, but he can still sue under state tort law. He can sue the private prison employees for negligence, emotional distress, medical malpractice and breach of fiduciary duty. He doesn't need the court to create a Bivens action.

Therefore the court declined to create one. Federal private prison employees must be sued in state court, unless no state action exists.

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