People For the American Way

Trump Judges Vote to Deny Full Court Rehearing and Affirm Denial of Damages for Violation of a Prisoner’s First Amendment Rights: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

News and Analysis
Trump Judges Vote to Deny Full Court Rehearing and Affirm Denial of Damages for Violation of a Prisoner’s First Amendment Rights: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties.

In October 2019, Trump Eleventh Circuit judges Kevin Newsom, Elizabeth Branch, and Britt Grant voted to deny full court rehearing and affirmed the denial of a prisoner’s right to seek damages for violation of his First Amendment right to file a grievance against a prison officer. The case is Carter v. Allen.

Demetruis Carter was a prisoner who alleged he was subject to a sexually inappropriate touch by a prison officer. Carter told the officer he would file a grievance and was then put in segregation. The day after Carter filed the grievance, prison officers, including the officer in question, conducted a shakedown of the dorm in which Carter resided. After one of the officers produced a contraband cellphone, he accused Carter of hiding it and Carter was charged with a violation. Later, the warden instructed the officer in question to conduct another shakedown and search of Carter’s dorm. Carter told the warden he was uncomfortable with that officer due to the past grievance he had filed and was again placed in segregation.

Representing himself, Carter sued for violation of his First Amendment right to complain about the prison officer’s inappropriate behavior towards him.  The claim proceeded to a jury trial. Before the trial began Carter requested appointment of counsel. His request was denied. The jury later returned a verdict against him.

Carter filed a motion for a new trial and was denied. He appealed the denial as well as the jury verdict.  A three-judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit granted Carter’s request for counsel, but affirmed the jury verdict anyway. In particular, the panel ruled that Carter could not seek damages under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) because he suffered no physical injury.

Carter petitioned the Eleventh Circuit for an en banc rehearing of the case. A majority of the judges, including all of Trump’s judges, denied a rehearing.

Judge Beverly Martin dissented. She explained that in every other circuit, people in prison are allowed to seek damages for violations of their First Amendment rights but “not so in the Eleventh Circuit.” The physical injury requirement under the PLRA only pertains to claims for mental and emotional injury, she continued. A prisoner does not discard his “basic First Amendment rights at the prison gate,” but Judges Newson, Branch and Grant instead voted to deny Demetruis Carter the opportunity to pursue justice. Their decision sets a dangerous precedent for incarcerated people in the Eleventh Circuit who suffer mistreatment, abuse or assault, in any form, at the hands of prison officers.