Prisoners May Sue MDOC and Officials Under Elliot-Larsen

Does 11-18 v Dep't of Corrections, decided by the Court of Appeals March 27, 2018
The Court of Appeals ruled that a 1999 amendment to the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) excluding correctional facilities from its “public services” provision is unconstitutional because it violated the Equal Protection Clause of Michigan’s Constitution. Does 11-18 v Dep’t of Corrections, ___ Mich App ___ (2018). The case originated in 2013 when seven unidentified male prisoners sought relief under the ELCRA alleging that while they were under the age of 18 they were housed with adult male prisoners who abused and harassed them. Other plaintiffs joined the suit, including female prisoners alleging a sexually hostile prison environment. Defendants, including the Department of Corrections, wardens, and other officials, moved for dismissal in the trial court arguing that prisons are not public services under the ELCRA. The trial court denied the motion finding that the exception of prisons from the public services provision of the ELCRA was unconstitutional.

The Court of Appeals affirmed. Adopting the reasoning of Judge Beckering’s dissent in a prior appeal, the court held that the Legislature lacked the authority to except correctional facilities from the public services provision of the ELCRA. Michigan’s Equal Protection Clause extends civil rights protections to any and all persons. The Legislature was constitutionally mandated to implement those protections to any and all persons and lacked the authority to exclude anyone. The 1999 ELCRA amendment was unconstitutional, and the trial court properly denied defendants’ motion on that basis.

In their motion to dismiss, the defendants also argued that they were entitled to governmental immunity. The trial court disagreed, and the Court of Appeals again affirmed. Citing binding precedent, the court held that governmental immunity does not apply to ELCRA claims. Prisoner-plaintiff’s lawsuit may proceed.

Judge O’Connell dissented. He would have decided the case on statutory grounds, not constitutional grounds. He would have found that the 1999 amendment simply clarified the definition of “public services” and that no constitutional issue was presented because prisoners and non-prisoners are not similarly situated. He also would have found that the defendants were entitled governmental immunity because they were state officials acting in their official capacity when they implemented the policies at issue in the suit and plaintiffs did not plead in avoidance of governmental immunity. Judge O’Connell opined that the majority opinion opened “the floodgates” to prisoner lawsuits alleging civil rights violations against prosecutors, state officials, and judges.

Read the majority opinion here.

Read Judge O’Connell’s dissent here.