158 F.3d 1342 (D.C. Cir. 1998), 97-7043, Davis v. District of Columbia

Docket Nº:97-7043.
Citation:158 F.3d 1342
Party Name:Michael Lee DAVIS, Appellant, v. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA and Dwight Bynum, Corporal, Central Facility, Appellees, United States of America, Intervenor for Appellee.
Case Date:October 27, 1998
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

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158 F.3d 1342 (D.C. Cir. 1998)

Michael Lee DAVIS, Appellant,


DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA and Dwight Bynum, Corporal, Central

Facility, Appellees,

United States of America, Intervenor for Appellee.

No. 97-7043.

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

October 27, 1998

Argued Sept. 1, 1998.

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[332 U.S.App.D.C. 439] Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 97cv00092).

Catherine E. Lhamon, argued the cause as amicus curiae for appellant. With her on the briefs were Steven H. Goldblatt, appointed by the court, and Mary L. Clark.

Michael L. Davis, appearing pro se, was on the brief for appellant.

Thomas M. Fisher argued the cause for appellees. With him on the brief were John M. Ferren, Corporation Counsel, Charles L. Reischel, Deputy Corporation Counsel, Lutz Alexander Prager, Assistant Deputy Corporation Counsel, and Mary L. Wilson, Assistant Corporation Counsel. Jo Anne Robinson, Principal Deputy Corporation Counsel, entered an appearance.

Frank W. Hunger, Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice, Wilma A. Lewis, U.S. Attorney, Barbara L. Herwig and Deborah Ruth Kant, Attorneys, U.S. Department of Justice, were on the brief for intervenor United States of America.

Before: WALD, WILLIAMS and TATEL, Circuit Judges.

WILLIAMS, Circuit Judge:

Michael Lee Davis, an inmate of D.C. Central Prison at Lorton, brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He alleged that one Corporal Bynum, an official of the District of Columbia Department of Corrections, and the District of Columbia itself, violated his constitutional right to privacy. According to his complaint, Bynum broke the seal on the plaintiff's medical files and disclosed their contents to others without the plaintiff's consent, allegedly saying that Davis was dying of HIV. In his complaint, Davis alleged resulting emotional and mental distress, but no other injury. He sought compensatory and punitive damages as well as declaratory relief. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, the district court dismissed the complaint sua sponte, for failure to state a claim on which relief could be granted. In doing so it relied on 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e), § 803(d) of the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA"), enacted as Title VIII of the Omnibus Consolidated Rescissions and Appropriations Act of 1996, Pub.L. No. 104-134, 110 Stat. 1321 (1996). That provision, "Limitation on Recovery," states:

No Federal civil action may be brought by a prisoner confined in a jail, prison, or other correctional facility, for mental or emotional injury suffered while in custody without a prior showing of physical injury.

42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e).

Davis appeals from the district court's dismissal, arguing primarily that § 1997e(e) violates his right to equal protection and unduly burdens his Fifth Amendment right of access to the courts. He also says that the district court erred in dismissing his complaint sua sponte, without granting him leave to amend his complaint to allege physical injuries. We appointed amicus curiae to argue these issues on behalf of plaintiff. We affirm.

I. Constitutionality of § 1997e(e)

Davis contends that § 1997e(e) violates his right to equal protection because its prohibition on recovery for emotional or mental injury absent a prior showing of physical injury substantially burdens his ability to vindicate his right to privacy. Thus he invokes the familiar taxonomy in which classifications that disadvantage a suspect class or impinge on the exercise of a fundamental right are subject to strict scrutiny, while classifications that do neither are subject only to review for rationality. Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, 216-17, 102 S.Ct. 2382, 72 L.Ed.2d 786 (1982). Here the central claim is that Davis's right to privacy is a "fundamental right" within the meaning of the above concept, and that it was unconstitutionally invaded when Corporal Bynum broke the seal on his file and disclosed his medical condition to outsiders. We will assume as much for purposes of argument. Because § 1997e(e) does not sufficiently impinge on the hypothetical right, it does not deprive Davis of equal protection even under that assumption.

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[332 U.S.App.D.C. 440] In addressing the constitutional issue, the parties offer sharply contrasting readings of the statute. Davis claims that it cuts a wide swath, eliminating even actions for injunctive or declaratory relief where plaintiff alleges emotional injury without prior physical injury (thereby enhancing the likelihood of its being unconstitutional). The District, plus the United States as intervenor (pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2403), argue for a narrow reading, saying that § 1997e(e) is merely a limitation on damages, thus preserving actions for injunctive and declaratory relief based on emotional injury. We agree with the District and the United States that the provision has little or no bearing on declaratory or injunctive actions.

First, the text of the statute refers to injuries "suffered," the past tense suggesting the statute's inapplicability to claims based on the threat of prospective injury, as would be the case for claims for declaratory or injunctive relief. But more critical is the fact that suits for declaratory and injunctive relief against the threatened invasion of a constitutional right do not ordinarily require proof of any injury other than the threatened constitutional deprivation itself. As we have held previously, there is a " 'presumed availability of federal equitable relief against threatened invasions of constitutional interests.' " Hubbard v. EPA, 809 F.2d 1, 11 (D.C.Cir.1986) (quoting Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388, 404, 91 S.Ct. 1999, 29 L.Ed.2d 619 (1971) (Harlan, J., concurring)). Although a plaintiff seeking equitable relief must show a threat of substantial and immediate irreparable injury, see O'Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. 488, 502, 94 S.Ct. 669, 38 L.Ed.2d 674 (1974), a prospective violation of a constitutional right constitutes irreparable injury for these purposes. Ross v. Meese, 818 F.2d 1132, 1135 (4th Cir.1987). Thus, we agree with the District that the statute does not materially thwart actions for injunctions or declaratory judgments, for the simple reason that a plaintiff's ability to claim such relief is normally independent of any injury other than the threatened loss of the constitutional right. This reading accords with that of the Seventh Circuit in Zehner v. Trigg, 133 F.3d 459 (7th Cir.1997), which construed § 1997e(e) as limiting only the damage remedy, leaving injunctive relief in place. Id. at 461-64.

Concluding that § 1997e(e) has no restrictive effect on claims for declaratory or injunctive relief, we next turn to whether its limitation on damages actions sufficiently impinges on the alleged privacy right, assuming it to exist and qualify as fundamental within the meaning of equal protection doctrine. It is clear at the outset that the Constitution does not mandate a damages remedy for all injuries suffered as a result of a constitutional violation. In Bush v. Lucas, 462 U.S. 367, 103 S.Ct. 2404, 76 L.Ed.2d 648 (1983), for example, Congress had provided an elaborate set of remedies for civil service employees, remedies covering the constitutional violations alleged but not including compensation for consequential damages, specifically attorneys' fees and "emotional and dignitary harms." Id. at 372 n. 9, 103 S.Ct. 2404. Despite this deficiency the Court regarded Congress's scheme as a "special factor[ ] counseling hesitation," and accordingly declined to infer a damages remedy under Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388, 91 S.Ct. 1999, 29 L.Ed.2d 619 (1971). The Court observed that the question of judicial creation of a remedy could "obviously" not "be answered by simply noting that existing remedies do not provide complete relief for the plaintiff." 462 U.S. at 388, 103 S.Ct. 2404.

Similarly, in Schweiker v. Chilicky, 487 U.S. 412, 108 S.Ct. 2460, 101 L.Ed.2d 370 (1988), the Court declined to imply a Bivens remedy for people who were improperly denied Social Security disability benefits, allegedly as a result of due process violations. It noted that "exactly as in Bush, Congress has failed to provide for 'complete relief': respondents have not been given a remedy in damages...

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