Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Inmate with PTSD loses equal protection claim

Inmates have rights, too. But they are much harder to prove. Sometimes the inmate gets shafted, but the law is not on his side, so he loses the case.

The case is Spavone v. New York State Department of Correctional Services, decided on June 20. Plaintiff is in the big house, having committed some felonies. He has post-traumatic stress disorder from fighting with the Contras in Nicaragua more than 20 years ago. He also experienced the 9/11 terrorist attacks first-hand. He wanted a medical leave of absence to deal with his PTSD. That leave of absence would take him out of jail to deal with his psychological issues. Under state law, a medical leave of absence is available for surgery if "absolutely necessary to the health and well-being of the inmate." These leaves are difficult to get, though. In 2008, DOCS granted 19 leaves of absence for a prison population of over 60,000.

The problem for Spavone is that he wants a medical leave of absence for PTSD. State law does not specifically provide for that kind of leave; it only covers physical ailments. His request for a medical leave of absence was denied, so he sues under the Constitution. He claims that the distinction between leaves of absence for physical ailments (covered under the law) and mental ailments (not covered) violates equal protection.

Interesting issue. If you follow equal protection jurisprudence, a classification violates the Constitution if it discriminates on the basis of a protected characteristic, such as race or gender. Otherwise, the government wins the case if it can show a rational basis for the distinction. The Second Circuit (Leval, Katzmann and Livingston) applies rational-basis review, which is the kiss of death in these cases, but not always fatal.

Spavone loses because he has not shown that the defendants -- individual jail officials -- could have reasonably believed that the mental/physical treatment distinction violated the Constitution. This is because, in light of an agreement between DOCS and the Office of Mental Health, they had reason to believe that basic mental health treatment -- including residential programs -- were available to inmates like Spavone. Since defendants had reason to think that this treatment was available to plaintiff, they are entitled to qualified immunity, and the case is dismissed.

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