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Gay Prisoner Can Sue for Sexual Orientation Discrimination

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a Michigan prisoner’s discrimination lawsuit on Thursday, finding that the prisoner had sufficiently alleged a plausible claim for sexual orientation discrimination against prison officials.

Plaintiff Ricky Davis, who represented himself in the lawsuit, claimed that he was removed from his public-works employment because of his sexual orientation, in violation of his rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Davis is an insulin-dependent diabetic, who was hired to participate in an off-site public-works program administered by the prison. He was screened and medically cleared for this assignment by prison health officials. Although there were other insulin-dependent diabetic inmates who participated in the public-works program, Davis claimed that he was the only gay person in the program.

Moreover, Davis alleged that because of his sexual orientation, the public-works officers supervising his work crew treated him differently than other inmates, ridiculed and belittled him, and made "under the breath" remarks when required to strip search him after an off-site assignment.

Davis was removed from the public-works program for health concerns after he complained about low blood sugar during an off-site work day. Davis claimed that the prison's supposed concern for his diabetic condition was a pretext, and that other similarly-situated non-homosexual, insulin-dependant diabetic inmates were allowed to continue working in the program.

The district court dismissed Davis's equal protection claim on two grounds:

  • The claim failed under a rational basis review because Davis failed to identify other prisoners who were similarly-situated in all relevant respects. In particular, the court noted that Davis failed "to identify any other diabetic prisoner who caused an incident requiring the work crew to return to the facility prematurely" (Since Davis claimed that the crew didn't return early that day, the district court obviously credited the prison's version of the facts instead of Davis's.)
  • Even if Davis had shown he was treated differently than other similarly-situated diabetics, Davis's claim was barred by the Supreme Court's decision in Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture, which the district court interpreted as barring all claims involving the application of rational basis scrutiny to employment decisions and other discretionary decision-making.

Davis appealed, arguing that the district court erred in dismissing his complaint at the pleading stage because he sufficiently alleged facts that, when taken as true, state a plausible claim that he was removed from his public-works employment because of the defendants' anti-gay animus. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, and reinstated the case.

Applying rational basis scrutiny, the Sixth Circuit found that Davis alleged facts that, taken as true, state a plausible sexual orientation discrimination claim that the defendants removed him from the public-works program because of an anti-gay animus. Since the Sixth Circuit previously held that "the desire to effectuate one's animus against homosexuals can never be a legitimate governmental purpose, [and] a state action based on that animus alone violates the Equal Protection Clause," the court ruled that Davis's claim was improperly dismissed.

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