6th Circuit Revives Gay Inmate’s Equal Protection Claim Against Prison Health Services

A panel of the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed a summary judgment order that District Judge Robert Holmes Bell (W.D.Mich.) had issued in the case of Davis v. Prison Health Services, 2012 WL 1623216 (May 10, 2012), finding that state prison inmate Ricky Davis had alleged sufficient facts to raise an inference of anti-gay discriminatory intent in Prison Health Service's decision to remove him from working in an off-site public works program.  The opinion by Circuit Judge Julia Smith Gibbons finds that Judge Bell wrongly relied on the defendant's response to Davis's grievance in deciding whether to dismiss his claim, and also wrongly applied the concept of the "class of one" claim to find that Davis could not raise an Equal Protection argument.

According to Davis's complaint, he is an openly gay insulin-dependent diabetic inmate at Florence Crane Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Michigan.  Davis said that he was the only gay inmate who was assigned to the off-site public works program.  He claimed that the public-works officers – employees of Prison Health Services – "treated him differently than other inmates, ridiculed and belittled him, and 'made a spectacle' of him when they brought him back to the correctional facility after a public works assignment."  Among other things, he said that "these officers did not want to strip search him because he was a homosexual and that they would make 'under the breath' remarks when selected to do so."

The officers carried packets of honey while supervising the off-site inmate workers because there were several insulin-dependent diabetics among them and the honey packets could be used to relieve any low-blood-sugar incidents that might occur.  On December 2, 2009, alleges Davis, he was working in the program when he complained that he thought he was suffering from low blood sugar.  He claims that the officer on duty refused to directly hand him the honey packet, instead handing it to another inmate to give to Davis.  Davis claimed that this showed the officer's "animus toward or discomfort with him as an openly gay man."  After Davis received the honey, he went back to work and completed his shift.  At the end of the shift, an officer had Davis fill out a medical health care request and meet with a nurse back at the correctional facility.   The nurse determined that his blood levels were normal and that he had a "false alarm."  The Prison Health unit manager then ordered that Davis be removed from the public works program.

Davis says he was told he was being removed because he was a diabetic and that the manager "wasn't going to be responsible if something happened to you while you were out on work assignment."  But Davis claims that the officers, who were uncomfortable with an openly gay man, were using any excuse to get him off the detail, so this incident was, in his view, a pretext for anti-gay discrimination.  He also claimed that other similarly-situated non-gay insulin-dependent diabetics were allowed to continue working in the program. 

He filed a grievance, which drew a response that contradicts his version of events.  According to the grievance response, his complaint of low blood sugar caused the officer to return the entire group to the correctional facility early.  "Custody concerns or reoccurrence and disruption to the work group, possible security risk to the public by the remainder of the group while the officer is attending to grievant's medical condition caused the medical provider to restrict him to facility grounds work.  Grievant admitted to HUM he is non-compliant with disabetic recommendation."  Davis contested this response, pointing out that he had finished out his shift, that all he had required from the officer was the packet of honey – not treatment, and that he had not admitted to being non-compliant with his treatment for diabetes.  His appeal was denied and he filed suit, claiming a 14th Amendment violation. 

The trial judge, screening the pro se complaint, dismissed the equal protection claim, saying that it failed under a rational basis review because Davis failed to identify other prisoners who were similarly situated in all relevant respects – i.e., "any other diabetic prisoner who caused an incident requiring the work crew to return to the facility prematurely so that he could receive medical treatment" - and that his claim was barred by the Supreme Court's ruling in Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture, 553 U.S. 591 (2008), which, according to the trial judge, excluded any equal protection claims involving rational basis review that challenged "subjective discretionary decisions" made by prison officials.

Wrong on both counts, held the 6th Circuit panel. 

For purposes of deciding whether to dismiss a claim, the trial judge is supposed to accept as true the factual allegations of the plaintiff and not pay any attention to the factual allegations of the defendant, since the issue in screening complaints, as on a motion to dismiss, is whether the plaintiff has alleged facts which, if believed by a factfinder, would support his claim.  Davis had alleged that there were other, non-gay diabetic prisoners who were allowed to continue in the program, and that, contrary to the statement in the response to his grievance, he had not caused the work detail to return to the facility early.  Furthermore, he had alleged facts that would support an inference of anti-gay bias by the officers.

As to Engquist, the court observed that the Supreme Court's ruling in that case dealt with public employees who raised complaints of arbitrary treatment that were not based on their membership in any class or group – so called "class of one" claims.  This was not true of Davis's claim, which was based on his membership in the group of gay people.  The 6th Circuit pointed out that equal protection claims based on sexual orientation are clearly cognizable in the case law of the 6th Circuit and other circuits.  See, for example, Johnson v. Knable, 862 F.2d 314 (table), 1988 WL 119136 (4th Cir. 1988), a case directly on point, holding that a prisoner had stated a valid equal protection claim when he alleged he was denied a work assignment because of his sexual orientation.  The court decided that it did not have to address the defendant's claim that under Engquist it could not be held liable for "discretionary" decisions, having decided that Engquist did not apply to this case because it is not a "class of one" case.

Although Davis brought his case pro se, on appeal he was represented by the ACLU LGBT Rights Project and the ACLU of Michigan.

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