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Sixth Sides With First Amendment in PLRA Circuit Split

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on June 02, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Constitutional violations are injuries in and of themselves and prisoners asserting them do not have to allege a concomitant physical injury, the Sixth Circuit ruled on Monday. That means that such suits are not prohibited by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which prohibits prisoners from asserting 1983 claims alleging only mental or emotional injuries. A violation of one's First Amendment rights is a separate injury, not limited by the PLRA's preclusion.

The Sixth's ruling puts it in the more permissive side of a long standing circuit split over whether prisoners can sue for constitutional violations that did not result in physical injury. Following yesterday's ruling, not only will prisoners' constitutional claims survive the PLRA, prisoners may also be entitled to compensatory damages, punitive damages, and injunctive relief.

The Constitutional Injury

After Kevin King was sentenced to prison for murder, he became a well-known jailhouse litigator, at least in his prison. When King joined a class action lawsuit against Michigan's prisons, prison officials transferred him to a higher security, more restrictive prison. He sued, pro se, and the Sixth Circuit found that the officials had illegally retaliated against him for exercising his First Amendment rights, namely participating in the litigation and assisting other inmates in filing grievances. However, when the case was remanded, the district court denied punitive damages and injunctive relief.

Under the PLRA, prisoners may not bring federal suits against a jail, prison, or correctional facility for mental or emotional injury without a prior showing of physical injury. This prohibition is in tension with the First Amendment's prohibition of laws limiting one's right "to petition the government for redress of grievances."

The Circuit Split

In attempting to resolve this conflict, many circuit courts have applied common-law tort principals to First Amendment claims. Under common law, compensatory damages are available only when there has been an actual physical or emotional harm. If a First Amendment complaint does not allege a physical injury, then, the injury must be for mental or emotional harm, under this logic. That's the rule in the Fifth, Eighth, Tenth and Third Circuits.

In the Ninth and Seventh, a plaintiff is entitled to relief from First Amendment claims regardless of physical or emotional injuries. In these circuits, a prisoner's alleged First Amendment violation can survive the PLRA without alleging a physical injury.

The Sixth joined the Ninth and Seventh Circuits, finding that "deprivations of First Amendment rights are themselves injuries," and that the PLRA is no bar for relief from those injuries. According to the Sixth Circuit, the PLRA prohibits actions for mental or emotional injury unless there is a physical injury component. That does not mean that the PLRA prohibits all suits not based on physical injuries -- it only prohibits those based on mental or emotional injuries alone.

Since a First Amendment violation is a whole other beast, it is not knocked out by the PLRA. That allows King, and other prisoners in the Sixth, to recover compensatory damages, punitive damages and injunctive relief for a violation of their constitutional rights.

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