WASHINGTON -- Inmates in the Michigan prison system who claim they were exposed to sexual violence, solitary confinement and brutal force as children cannot move forward with their lawsuit against the state, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled this week. The court did not dismiss the inmates' lawsuit on the validity of its claims. Instead, the majority held that cases of this type can never proceed because of a law -- deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge nearly a decade ago -- that exempts Michigan prisoners who are seeking damages from civil rights protections.
"I was stunned, frankly," said Deborah LaBelle, an Ann Arbor attorney for the plaintiffs. She plans to appeal the case to the Michigan Supreme Court.
The Huffington Post spoke to some of the plaintiffs of the lawsuit for a HuffPost Highline investigation. The group includes "Jamie," who, in an incident captured on video, was dragged out of her cell at age 17 in a way that a corrections expert called "clearly dangerous.” The group also includes "Max," who said he was sexually assaulted by two different adult bunkmates. The Michigan Department of Corrections doesn’t deny that it used to house 17-year-old inmates with adults until 2013. The plaintiffs claim that this practice led to systematic sexual abuse, which the state denies.
In Tuesday's 2-1 decision, the majority wrote that the claims, "if proven, amount to extremely egregious and reprehensible conduct by defendants." But the issue before the court was whether the plaintiffs could sue for damages under the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act, a decades-old anti-discrimination law that serves as the state's most important civil rights statute. Plaintiffs had brought claims under that law for sex and age discrimination.
In 1996, a group of female prisoners brought a high-profile lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections, alleging that they'd experienced sexual harassment and assault by male correctional officers. LaBelle represented the female inmates, and the state was eventually forced to pay $100 million to settle that case.
As a result, Michigan lawmakers decided to cut prisoners out of the anti-discrimination law. Their amendment, which passed in 1999, carved out people in state and county correctional facilities from those protections. The state wanted to apply the amendment retroactively, but was unable to do so.
In 2007, a federal district court ruled the amendment unconstitutional in an unpublished opinion, meaning it was not intended to have a binding effect on future cases. "Given the state's abhorrent and well-documented history of sexual and other abuse of female prisoners, the court finds this amendment particularly troubling," U.S. District Judge John O'Meara wrote at the time.
In this week's ruling, the state judges not only argued that the 2007 decision doesn't apply to the kids' case -- they came to an entirely different conclusion about the controversial amendment.
"Because the 1999 amendment is rationally related to the legitimate interests of deterring frivolous lawsuits and preserving scarce public resources, we hold that the amendment passes the rational basis test and is constitutional," the court said.
The judges also hit the plaintiffs on a technicality -- that they failed to disclose the number of civil actions and appeals the prisoners previously initiated.
Judge Jane Beckering, in a partial dissent, slammed the decision on the basis that she, too, found the 1999 amendment "unconstitutional."
"The Legislature could no sooner enact an amendment [excluding] prisoners from the scope of the statute as it could decide to exclude from the act blue-eyed individuals, African-Americans, or anyone named 'Steve,'" she wrote.
Margo Schlanger, a civil rights lawyer and University of Michigan law professor, pointed out that "the general federal civil rights laws cover prisons, and when prison officials have sought exemptions, both Congress and the courts have rejected those efforts."
The plaintiffs have also filed a case in federal court.
The Michigan Department of Corrections pointed to this week's ruling as evidence that its case will prevail. "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, a spokesman for the department.
He added, "It's been our position that the allegation that rampant sexual abuse was taking place in our prisons is false."
The judges didn't issue their ruling this week based on the validity of the case's actual claims. But Beckering wrote that "for the past 12 years the federal government has been aware of and attempting to eradicate the very problem alleged to have occurred in this case -- the sexual assault of juvenile prisoners. Michigan has been trying to eliminate the rights of juveniles -- and other prisoners -- to seek monetary relief for this."
She added, "I cannot, in good conscience, countenance this attempt at shirking liability and responsibility."