Wednesday, December 14, 2022
No Bivens Cause of Action for "Systemwide" Conditions-of-Confinement Claim, Fourth Circuit Says
The Fourth Circuit ruled that a federal prisoner did not have a Bivens cause of action for a conditions-of-confinement claim under the Eighth Amendment. The ruling means that the prisoner can't sue federal officers for monetary damages for the Eighth Amendment violations that the prisoner alleged.
The ruling specifically follows, and is consistent with, the Supreme Court's hyper-narrowing and all-but-overruling Bivens in recent Terms.
The court in Tate v. Harmon said that the prisoner's claims arose in a "new context," and that "special factors" counseled hesitation in extending Bivens. Following the Supreme Court, the Fourth Circuit acknowledged the overlap in the two questions, and summarized them together:
In explaining above why Tate's claim arises in a "new context," we noted that his claim seeks to impose liability on prison officials on a systemic level, implicating the day-to-day operations of prisons, affecting the scope of the officials' responsibilities and duties, and implicating policy, administrative, and economic decisions. Determinations about the temperature at which to keep cells, the level of cleanliness at which prison employees or inmates themselves are to maintain cells, the adequacy of toilet paper and toothbrushes, and the length and thickness of mattresses are usually the subject of systemwide executive regulations. Moreover, providing a damages remedy for such inadequacies would involve not only decisions of acceptable human needs but also judgments regarding prison staffing levels, economic considerations, and the most efficient procedures for addressing the inadequacies. . . . We conclude that in this context, the political branches are indeed "better equipped to decide whether existing remedies should be augmented by the creation of a new judicial remedy." This is especially so because we are ill-suited to "predict the systemwide consequences of recognizing a cause of action under Bivens," and even our "uncertainty" on that question "forecloses relief."