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August 31, 2015

COA: Prisoners' equal protection rights are not violated when they are foreclosed from seeking monetary relief for their injuries under the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act

In the consolidated opinion of Doe v. Dep’t. of Corrections, Nos. 321013; 321756, the Michigan Court of Appeals held that it is not a violation of equal protection when prisoners are foreclosed from suing for damages under the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA).  The plaintiffs are seven, unidentified males who became imprisoned in the Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities. The plaintiffs brought suit under the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA), MCL 37.2101 et seq., claiming that they had been subject to sexual violence and harassment by adult male prisoners and female prison guards.  The defendants moved for summary disposition contending that plaintiffs failed to comply with MCL 600.5507(2), a provision of the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), requiring that a prisoner filing a lawsuit concerning prison conditions disclose the number of civil actions and appeals the prisoner previously initiated.  Furthermore, the defendants argued that the ELCRA, as amended, provides that a “public service” does not include a state or county correctional facility with respect to prisoners, and that this amendment to the ELCRA did not violate equal protections.  The trial court denied defendants’ motion for summary disposition, ruling that the ELCRA, as amended, was unconstitutional because it violated the equal protection clauses of the Michigan and United States Constitutions.
 
In reversing the trial court’s decision, the Court of Appeals first held that the requirement in MCL 600.5507(2) that a prisoner must disclose the number of civil actions and appeals that the prisoner has previously initiated is not limited to those that were dismissed as frivolous.  The Court also held that this requirement applied to all prisoners, not just those prisoners who are indigent, and that failure to disclose the number of previous suits requires dismissal of the action.  Furthermore, the Court held that the amendment to the ELCRA, which effectively precludes prisoners from seeking monetary redress under the ELCRA, is constitutional.  It found that Mason v. Granhom, an unpublished federal district court case, does not bind the Court on this issue.  Rather, this Court found that preservation of scarce governmental resources from frivolous prisoner actions is a legitimate government interest under the rational basis analysis.  The Court recognized that while ELCRA may not be among the avenues through which plaintiffs can seek redress for their alleged injuries, it does not preclude plaintiffs from pursuing remedies available through other legal avenues.

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