By Christopher T. Kim
Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, courts are required to screen cases where a prisoner sues the government or a government employee. The court must identify cognizable claims or dismiss the complaint, or any portion of the complaint, if the complaint is “frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted,” or “seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief.” This “screening of cases” is a standard and straightforward process in prisoner cases. But while certain prisoner cases are outright dismissed as a result of the court’s screening, some of these dismissals get appealed and overturned. This is what happened in Byrd v. Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.
Charles Edwards Byrd, an Arizona state prisoner, filed a Section 1983 lawsuit challenging the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department’s alleged policy of allowing female guards to observe male pretrial detainees showering and using the bathroom on a daily basis from a distance of four to five feet. The district court dismissed Byrd’s complaint, which contained claims under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, without requiring a response by the defendants because it reasoned that the very policy that Byrd is challenging is the type of cross-gender supervision that has long been held constitutional by the Ninth Circuit.
Byrd appealed the district court’s dismissal under Section 1915A. The Ninth Circuit recognized that in prior cases it has (1) upheld cross-gender surveillance of showers specifically because such actual viewing of the inmates is infrequent and irregular; and (2) held that female guards observing male prisoner body cavity searches are often done with a limited or indistinct view of the searches. In comparison to its past cases, the Ninth Circuit noted that the circumstances faced by Byrd were distinguishable because the observation by female guards was allegedly not infrequent, irregular, or from a distance – but instead was frequent and just a few feet away.
The defendants tried to argue that the Sheriff’s Department’s policy is justified to ensure the institutional security of the prison and equal employment opportunities for female guards. But the Ninth Circuit rejected this argument because the court had no evidence supporting the defendants’ justifications for regular cross-gender observation in showers and toilets.
The Ninth Circuit ultimately reasoned that the prison’s “up close and personal” policy of allowing female guards may in fact be justified, but that any such considerations are just conjecture at this point because the district court dismissed the case before the defendants even responded to the complaint or present evidence justifying their position. The Ninth Circuit remanded the case back to the district court for further proceedings and ordered the defendants to respond to Byrd’s lawsuit.
What does this all mean? While Byrd’s case has been resurrected, it does not mean the defendants are stripped of any legal options to try to dismiss the case. The Ninth Circuit simply noted that because Byrd alleged sufficient facts to state his claims, and there was no evidence to support the defendants’ arguments for the policy, the district court’s dismissal was not warranted at this time. The defendants can now respond to Byrd’s complaint and file any appropriate motions with the necessary evidence to try and dispose of this case.
In other words, if an inmate’s case may have some merit after discovery, the Ninth Circuit may reverse and remand a case for further proceedings even when the district court’s initial assessment is that the case should be screened out and dismissed. While most of these cases are not appealed, and inmates simply try again or wait for another grievance to air in the courts, Byrd demonstrates that the Ninth Circuit will carefully examine the district court’s reasoning for dismissal.