Mich. gay prisoner wins discrimination case
By Kate Opalewski
Originally printed 5/17/2012 (Issue 2020 - Between The Lines News)
The American Civil Liberties Union received a favorable decision last week from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in a case on behalf of the plaintiff, Ricky Davis, a gay prisoner at the Florence Crane Correctional Facility in Coldwater.
Davis filed an employment discrimination case on his own alleging that he was improperly removed from his employment in the prison public works program because of his sexual orientation, claiming that it was in violation of his rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. A federal judge in the district court, without the benefit of any briefing, dismissed the complaint pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act stating that Davis failed to claim that he was treated differently from other similarly-situated prisoners. According to court documentation, Davis, an insulin-dependent diabetic, was screened and medically cleared for his off-site assignment by prison health officials. Although there were other insulin-dependent diabetics who participate in the public works program, Davis claimed that he is the only one who is gay.
Davis also claimed that the public works officers were looking for a reason, "even if that reason was invalid," to have him removed from the public works program in order to "eliminate the need to have to deal with a homosexual." When Davis suffered from what he believed at the time to be a diabetic episode while on duty, he was deemed a security risk because his diabetic episode caused the public works crew to return to the facility early. Davis alleges that he did not return to the facility early and was able to finish the remainder of his shift after receiving a honey packet.
A public works officer had Davis fill out a medical health care request and meet with a nurse upon his return to the facility. His episode was determined by the nurse to be a "false alarm." Davis claims that he had never previously experienced a low blood sugar episode while on a public works assignment. Despite these facts, the prison health unit manager ordered that Davis be removed from the public works program. Davis alleged that the public works officers persuaded the prison health unit manager, apparently either by colluding with her or providing her with false information about the incident, to use concerns about his diabetic condition as the pretext for removing him from the program.
Davis further alleged that because of his sexual orientation, the public works officers supervising his crew 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 the incident occurred. He provides specific details of the defendants' anti-gay animus by alleging that the public works officers were uncomfortable with his sexual orientation and sought to avoid strip-searching, or otherwise interacting with him because he is gay. He also alleges that heterosexual diabetic prisoners were allowed to perform identical jobs in the public works program without being labeled as a safety risk.
Davis argues that the district court erred in dismissing his complaint at the pleading stage. The Michigan's ACLU Chapter stepped in to represent Davis on appeal arguing that, as most courts across the country have held, the government cannot discriminate against any LGBT person when there is no rational basis for the adverse treatment.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and held that Davis alleged enough facts to raise a claim of sexual orientation discrimination in the public works program of the Department of Corrections.
"That when someone raises a sexual orientation discrimination claim as violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, gay people constitute an 'identifiable group' for the equal protection challenge. What happened in the Davis case is that District Judge Bell had improperly treated Davis' complaint for sexual orientation discrimination as a 'class of one' claim. Class of one claims or legal claims that allege that someone was 'arbitrarily treated differently' from others, not for the reason that they belong to a particular identifiable group. Bell failed to recognize gays as an identifiable minority subjected to discrimination in society," said Jay Kaplan, ACLU of Michigan LGBT Project Staff Attorney.
What this means for LGBT people in Michigan is if they file a complaint for discrimination in the federal court, based on sexual orientation discrimination by local, state or federal governments, they have alleged an equal protection argument and the court has to make a determination of whether the government has a rational basis to justify that discrimination.
"What's important about this case is that the sixth circuit has made it clear that LGBT people are an identifiable group of people who have been subjected to discrimination by our government. This means that complaints that allege discrimination based on sexual orientation by the government have to go forward and cannot be dismissed based on the pleadings themselves," said Kaplan. "This is an opportunity for the case to be briefed on its merits and to give Mr. Davis his day in court, which he deserves."
The lawsuit names the Prison Health Services Department, Health Unit Manager Scharfnaar, Public Works Supervisor Decline and Corrections Officer Kast as the defendants. Davis is represented by Michael Steinberg and Kary Moss with the ACLU of Michigan in Detroit, Joshua Block and Leslie Cooper at the ACLU Foundation and Miriam Aukerman with the ACLU of Michigan in Grand Rapids.
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