Court tosses suit of teen inmates alleging rape

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Michigan’s Court of Appeals has dismissed a high-profile lawsuit against the state filed by male teen inmates alleging rape and abuse while they were housed in adult prisons.

The lawsuit was originally filed in 2013 on behalf of several teenage “John Does” who were sentenced as adults and placed in prisons around Michigan. On Wednesday, the Court of Appeals released its 3-0 decision throwing out the suit on two technical matters. An attorney representing the plaintiffs in the case said she plans to appeal.

The judges cited a “failure to comply with disclosure requirements” tied to previous court filings on behalf of one plaintiff. Michigan law requires prisoners to disclose any other civil matters with which they are involved when filing litigation.

“This disclosure is ambiguous regarding the identities of the parties in the previous litigation, and leaves to speculation whether it was ‘the prisoner[s]’ from this case as a full group, partial group, or individually,” Judge Michael J. Riordan wrote.

Two of the three judges also ruled prisoners are not protected by Michigan’s anti-discrimination law. Passed in the mid-1970s, the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act offers protection from discrimination based on “religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, or marital status.”

A 1999 amendment to the law sought to exclude “an individual serving a sentence of imprisonment in a state or county correctional facility” from the protections. A federal court eventually declared the amendment unconstitutional, according to Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.

“If a federal court decides a law is unconstitutional and that decision is not appealed by the state, ... then you don’t get to go and rehash that case before a different judge,” Korobkin said.

The Michigan Department of Corrections welcomed Wednesday’s ruling. But the state is also targeted by a federal lawsuit based on similar claims.

“This case has been defended at a great cost to the taxpayers, and we hope this ruling will bring it to its conclusion, said Chris Gautz, public information officer for the Department of Corrections, in an email response to questions. “As we have said from the beginning, while we take these allegations very seriously, it’s been our position that the allegation that rampant sexual abuse was taking place in our prisons is false.”

Deborah LaBelle, part of the the plaintiffs’ legal team in the case, said the disclosure issue is a small technical matter. The ruling regarding Elliott-Larsen, she said, is more troubling.

“It’s an appalling attempt to disenfranchise,” LaBelle said. “If you are carved out of the civil rights act, you’re carved out of the Constitution’s equal protections.”

In a partial dissent from the ruling Wednesday, Judge Jane M. Beckering also objected to the state’s reliance on the 1999 amendment to Elliott-Larsen that a federal court later rejected.

“Despite a clear constitutional mandate, ... in 1999 the Legislature attempted to take away the rights of prisoners who seek redress under the ELCRA,” she wrote. “It is this exclusion from protection under ELCRA that, in my opinion, renders the 1999 amendment ... unconstitutional.”

The John Doe cases gained national attention earlier this year from The Atlantic magazine and Huffington Post website. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office brought additional scrutiny by issuing subpoenas for the notes of a Huffington Post journalist who interviewed two of the plaintiffs, but eventually withdrew them.

The inmate plaintiffs have given graphic accounts of rape and abuse at the hands of other prisoners. And they depict prison workers in many cases as allowing assaults to take place.

One plaintiff who spoke with The Detroit News detailed being raped in the shower at Kinross Correctional Facility at the age of 17 by a stronger, older inmate.

“I pretty much just sat in the shower crying,” he said. “I never expected it to happen to me.”

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