January 10, 2012

Supreme Court Decides Minneci v. Pollard

On June 27, 2011, the Supreme Court decided Minneci v. Pollard, No. 10-1104, holding that where state law authorizes an alternative action that provides for both deterrence and adequate compensation, the Court would not imply a Bivens action (an Eighth-Amendment-based damages action) against employees of a privately owned federal prison.

Plaintiff, a prisoner in a federal facility owned by a private company, sued several company employees alleging that they had deprived him of adequate medical care in violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment and had injured him.  The district court treated the claim as a "Bivens action," after Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcot­ics Agents, 403 U. S. 388 (1971), and dismissed the action on the ground that the Eighth Amendment did not provide for a Bivens action against a privately managed prison's personnel.  The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the Eighth Amendment provided for such an action. 

The Supreme Court reversed, effectively reinstating the district court's dismissal of the claim.  The Court held that, under the circumstances presented in this case, the Court would not imply an Eighth-Amendment-based Bivens damages action against a privately owned federal prison.  Because state law here authorized an alternative action that provided for both deterrence and adequate compensation, the Court found no need to create an additional federal remedy. 

Employing the approach it had adopted in Wilkie v. Robbins, 551 U. S. 537 (2007), the Court concluded that the plaintiff's Eighth Amendment claim focused on a kind of conduct that typically falls within the scope of traditional state tort law and that existing state law provided an adequate process for protecting the constitutional interests at stake.  The Court noted that state law generally provides much broader remedies against private employees (like the defendants in this case) than against public employees.  The Court also noted that the existing state remedies need not be congruent with the remedies that would be available under a Bivens action; although a state remedy might be less generous than a Bivens remedy, that fact does not render the state remedy inadequate. 

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined. Justice Scalia filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Thomas joined.  Justice Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion.

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