In a Section 1983 or Bivens lawsuit, the court can order prison officials to give you money to make up for the harm you suffered when your rights were violated. You can get money damages instead of, or in addition to, an injunction. You may want an injunction against some of the people you sue and money damages from others, or both. This section explains when and how to get money damages.

1. The Three Types of Money Damages

There are three types of money damages. The first type is an award of nominal damages. Nominal damages are frequently just $1, or some other very small sum of money. Nominal damages are awarded when you have proven a violation of your rights, but you have not shown any actual harm that can be compensated.

You are most likely to win a significant amount of money if you suffered an actual physical injury. The officials who are responsible should pay you for medical and other expenses, for any wages you lost, for the value of any part of your body or physical functioning which cannot be replaced or restored, and for your “pain and suffering.” These are called compensatory damages. The idea behind compensatory damages is to try and get you back to the condition you were in before you were injured.

The third type of damages you may be able to get is punitive damages. To get punitive damages, you need to show that the defendants’ actions were “motivated by evil motive or intent” or involved “reckless or callous indifference to your rights.” In other words, the officials had to either hurt you on purpose, or do something so clearly dangerous, they must have known it was likely to hurt you. An example of a prisoner getting punitive damages can be found in Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30 (1983). In that case, Mr. Wade had been moved into protective custody in his prison after having been assaulted by other prisoners. A prison guard moved two other prisoners into Mr. Wade’s cell, one of whom had recently beaten and killed another prisoner. Mr. Wade’s cellmates harassed, beat, and sexually assaulted him. The court found that the guard’s conduct in placing Mr. Wade in a situation the guard knew was likely to expose him to serious physical harm satisfied the standard for punitive damages. Mr. Wade won $25,000 in compensatory damages, and $5,000 in punitive damages.

Not all punitive damage awards require physical assault. Some courts and juries have awarded punitive damages for violations of other Constitutional rights based on a showing of “evil intent” by prison officials. One example is Siggers-El v. Barlow, 433 F.Supp.2d 811 (E.D. Mich. 2006). In that case a prisoner received $200,000 in punitive damages after he was transferred in retaliation for complaining to the warden about a prison official who harassed the prisoner and refused to put in the routine paperwork the prisoner needed to pay his appellate lawyer. The transfer ended up causing the prisoner to lose a very good prison job and contact with his family. That prisoner also received $19,000 in compensatory damages.

The point of punitive damages is to punish members of the prison staff who violate your rights and to set an example to discourage other prison staff from acting illegally in the future. Therefore, the court usually won’t impose punitive damages for one incident. You will have to show there has been a pattern of abuse or that there is a threat of more abuse in the near future.

Just because you are able to prove your case and win compensatory damages, does not automatically mean you will win punitive damages. For instance, in Coleman v. Rahija, 114 F.3d 778 (8th Cir. 1997), Ms. Coleman was able to win $1000 in compensatory damages by proving that she was illegally denied medical treatment, but she did not win punitive damages. In that case, Ms. Coleman had a history of premature and complicated pregnancies and was experiencing severe pain and bleeding in connection with her premature labor. Nurse Rahija, the nurse on duty at Ms. Coleman’s prison, was aware of Ms. Coleman’s medical history. Nurse Rahija examined Ms. Coleman and determined that Ms. Coleman could be in early labor. However, she delayed Ms. Coleman’s transfer to a hospital for several hours. The court ruled that Nurse Rahija’s actions reached the standard of “deliberate indifference” and therefore violated the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, but were not bad enough to show that she acted with “callous indifference” as required for punitive damages.

Even though you may not always get punitive damages, if you are suing for a violation of your rights and you have to prove deliberate indifference or excessive force to win your claim, it probably makes sense to ask for punitive damages, too. The standards for deliberate indifference and excessive force are discussed in Chapter Three.

2. Damages Under the PLRA

If you have not been physically hurt, the PLRA makes it harder to get damages. The PLRA 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.

This means that you cannot get money for the way something makes you feel unless you are also seeking money for a physical injury. Most courts have interpreted this statement to only affect claims for compensatory damages. This interpretation is explained in Thompson v. Carter, 284 F.3d 411 (2d Cir. 2002). So in most jurisdictions, you can still bring a claim for nominal or punitive damages for any kind of harm. And you can still try to get an injunction. Other cases to read on this issue are Harris v. Garner, 190 F.3d 1279 (11th Cir. 1999) (injunctive relief) and Royal v. Kautzky, 375 F.3d 720 (8th Cir. 2004) and Calhoun v. DeTella, 319 F.3d 936 (7th Cir. 2003) (nominal and punitive damages). Some of these courts have explained their interpretation by saying that otherwise, this section of the PLRA would be unconstitutional.

However, a few courts have held that this provision of the PLRA also bars punitive damages for emotional injuries. One case like that is Davis v. District of Columbia, 158 F.3d 1342 (D.C. Cir. 1998).
Another area in which courts disagree is whether a claim of a constitutional violation is a claim for “mental or emotional injury.” Most courts have decided that constitutional violations, like those described in Chapter Three, are in a different category. For that reason, you can get compensatory damages even if you have no physical injury.

One example is Canell v. Lightner, 143 F.3d 1210, 1213 (9th Cir. 1998). In that case, the Ninth Circuit stated that the plaintiff was, “not asserting a claim for ‘mental or emotional injury.’ He is asserting a claim for a violation of his First Amendment rights. The deprivation of First Amendment rights entitles a plaintiff to judicial relief wholly aside from any physical injury he can show, or any mental or emotional injury he may have incurred. Therefore, § 1997e(e)[of the PLRA] does not apply to First Amendment claims regardless of the form of relief sought.”

Other good cases on this issue are Robinson v. Page, 170 F.3d 747, 748 (7th Cir. 1999); Thompson v. Carter, 284 F.3d 411 (2d Cir. 2002); Cockroft v. Kirkland, 548 F.Supp.2d 767 (N.D. Cal. 2008); and Siggers-El v. Barlow, 433 F.Supp.2d 811 (E.D. Mich. 2006). As another court explained, because “First Amendment violations rarely, if ever, result in physical injuries, construction of the PLRA against recovery of damages would defeat congressional intent and render constitutional protections meaningless. If § 1997e(e) is applied to foreclose recovery in First Amendment actions, it would place the First Amendment itself “on shaky constitutional ground.” Siggers-El 433 F.Supp.2d at 816 (E.D. Mich. 2006).

Money Damages

  • You can get nominal damages if your rights have been violated.
  • You can get compensatory damages to make up for physical or other harm you were caused.
  • You can get punitive damages to punish guards who hurt you on purpose.

Other courts have disagreed with this approach and state that the PLRA even bars damages for constitutional claims. One example is Holloway v. Bizzaro, 571 F.Supp.2d 1270 (S.D.Fla. 2008), in which a prisoner filed a lawsuit seeking damages for being denied a pork-free diet in violation of the First Amendment Free Exercise clause. The Court dismissed his case, because he did not state he had any physical injury, and he was only seeking damages.
Different courts have different standards as to what qualifies as physical injury. The physical injury has to be greater than “de minimis” which means “very minor,” but it does not have to be severe. For example, in a case called Siglar v. Hightower, 112 F.3d 191 (5th Cir. 1997), a guard twisted a prisoner’s ear, and it was bruised and sore for three days. The court held that this was not enough of a physical injury. However, the court noted that a prisoner does not need to show a “significant” injury. Many courts do not have clear precedent on what kind of injury is enough.

3. Deciding How Much Money to Ask For

It is difficult to decide how much in compensatory and/or punitive damages you should request from the court. You should think carefully about asking for huge amounts of money, like millions of dollars, because the judge will be less likely to take your claim seriously if you do not ask for an appropriate amount. You can estimate a number for your compensatory damages by thinking about what your injury cost you. For example, try and come up with the amount of medical expenses you are likely to face in the future, or wages you have lost or will lose because you cannot work. Also, think about the effect your injury has had on your life. How long have you suffered? Are you permanently injured? In what specific ways were you harmed? You can look up cases in your Circuit involving injuries that are similar to your own and see what the court awarded those prisoners.

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