1 A Jailhouse Lawyer s Manual Chapter 5: Choosing a Court and a Lawsuit: An Overview of the Options Columbia Human Rights Law Review 8th Edition 2009
2 LEGAL DISCLAIMER A Jailhouse Lawyer s Manual is written and updated by members of the Columbia Human Rights Law Review. The law prohibits us from providing any legal advice to prisoners. This information is not intended as legal advice or representation nor should you consider or rely upon it as such. Neither the JLM nor any information contained herein is intended to or shall constitute a contract between the JLM and any reader, and the JLM does not guarantee the accuracy of the information contained herein. Additionally, your use of the JLM should not be construed as creating an attorney-client relationship with the JLM staff or anyone at Columbia Law School. Finally, while we have attempted to provide information that is up-to-date and useful, because the law changes frequently, we cannot guarantee that all information is current.
3 CHAPTER 5 CHOOSING A COURT AND A LAWSUIT: AN OVERVIEW OF THE OPTIONS* A. Introduction This Chapter will briefly explain the different lawsuits available to you, so that you can decide which type of lawsuit is best for you to bring. Each kind of lawsuit is described in more detail in later chapters of the JLM, so you should read those chapters for more specific information. The first step you should take when determining what suit to bring is to ask yourself: Do I want to attack the cause of my imprisonment, or the circumstances I am suffering in prison, or both? If you think unlawful circumstances led to your imprisonment, consult Part B of this Chapter. If you think something unlawful and damaging has happened to you while in prison for example, the prison refuses to give you your mail consult Part C. If you are not sure, read both Part B and Part C for more information. For the best chance of success, you must pay attention to things the law requires you to do when bringing the type of suit you choose. Many lawsuits require you to do certain things before you even begin the lawsuit itself (such as pursue an administrative grievance). Some lawsuits also require you to do certain things once you have begun the lawsuit (such as pay court fees, unless you can qualify for an exception). Different types of lawsuits have different results, or remedies. For example, some lawsuits allow you to demand that the opposing party pay you money if you win. But, other lawsuits do not provide for such money damages. Some types of lawsuits may lead to the reversal of your sentence or conviction, while other types do not provide for such remedies. Once you know what remedies each type of lawsuit can provide, you can decide which type of suit, if any, is right for you to file. B. Lawsuits to Challenge Your Conviction or Sentence 1. Criminal Appeals If a New York trial court convicted you of a crime, you have the right to appeal your conviction or your sentence to a higher New York court. 1 Prisoners in other states, and prisoners who were convicted of a federal crime, have a similar right to appeal their convictions. 2 On appeal, the higher, or appellate, court will examine the record of your trial to determine whether the judge or prosecutor committed any legal errors 3 in conducting your trial or sentencing. The appellate court may also determine if the jury properly weighed the evidence at trial, or if your sentence was excessively harsh or longer than the maximum time allowed by law. JLM, Chapter 9, Appealing Your Conviction or Sentence, explains the criminal appeals process in detail. 2. Post-Conviction Remedies New York also has three other procedures your can use to challenge the legality of your sentence or conviction. These additional procedures are frequently called post-conviction 1. N.Y. C.P.L.R (McKinney 2007). 2. Fed. R. App. P Legal errors are explained in JLM, Chapter 9, Appealing Your Conviction or Sentence; JLM, Chapter 20, Using Article 440 of the New York Criminal Procedure Law to Attack Your Unfair Conviction or Illegal Sentence; JLM, Chapter 13, Federal Habeas Corpus; and JLM, Chapter 21, State Habeas Corpus.
4 remedies, because you are asking the court to help you after you have been convicted. These procedures are different from an appeal, because during the appeal process your conviction is not yet final. The three post-conviction remedies are: an Article 440 motion, a petition for state habeas corpus, and a petition for federal habeas corpus. These procedures do not exist only in New York. Chapter 20 of the JLM lists the statutes in every state that are similar to New York s Article 440 motion. 4 JLM, Chapter 21 covers state habeas corpus procedures for Florida, New York, and Texas. Furthermore, prisoners in every state have the right to petition for federal habeas corpus. Federal habeas corpus is described in more detail in JLM, Chapter 13. Keep in mind, however, that an appeal is often the most effective way of challenging your sentencing or conviction. So, if you can, you should try to appeal your sentence before you try these other remedies. (a) Article 440 Motion 5 In an Article 440 motion, you request the trial court to review circumstances that made your conviction or sentence unfair. Examples of these circumstances are a change in the law, discovery of new evidence, an unauthorized or illegal sentence, or misconduct by the prosecutor or judge of which you did not and could not have known at the time of your trial. 6 You may also make an Article 440 motion on the grounds that you were convicted and sentenced in violation of your rights under the U.S. or New York State constitutions. 7 However, you cannot raise any claims you have already raised or could have raised in your criminal appeal. Relief under an Article 440 motion is a new trial, a new appeal, or a new sentence. Keep in mind that although there is no statute of limitations (time limit) for making an Article 440 motion, a court may not grant your motion if you wait too long after your sentencing to make your motion. 8 Chapter 20 of the JLM, Using Article 440 of the New York Criminal Procedure Law to Attack Your Unfair Conviction or Illegal Sentence, discusses Article 440 in great detail, and you should read it before making this motion. (b) State Habeas Corpus 9 State habeas corpus challenges the government s right to keep you in prison by looking into whether your confinement is legal. In general, however, New York courts will require you to use Article 440 instead of a petition for state habeas corpus unless you are challenging a parole decision and bail. Relief under habeas corpus is immediate release from custody. Chapter 21 of the JLM, State Habeas Corpus, explains New York habeas corpus in detail, as well as Florida and Texas habeas corpus procedures. New York habeas corpus is available to challenge bail determinations, revocations of your parole, extradition, arraignment and delay, misdemeanor complaint and delay, felony complaint and delay, and speedy trial. (c) Federal Habeas Corpus 10 Federal habeas corpus is a procedure through which you can get a federal judge to review a claim that you were convicted or sentenced in violation of your rights under the federal Constitution. This is different from an Article 440 motion or a petition for state habeas 4. See Appendix A of JLM, Chapter 20, Using Article 440 of the New York Criminal Procedure Law to Attack Your Conviction or Sentence. 5. N.Y. Crim. Proc. Law (McKinney 2005 & 2007 Supp.). 6. N.Y. Crim. Proc (a) (g) (McKinney 2005 & 2007 Supp.). 7. N.Y. Crim. Proc (h) (McKinney 2005 & 2007 Supp.). 8. See People v. Byrdsong, 161 Misc. 2d 232, 236, 613 N.Y.S.2d 543, 545 (Sup. Ct. Queens County 1994) (declaring that a post-conviction motion filed nine years after trial and seven years after appeals was, in the interest of finality, too long of a time period to continue further litigation). 9. N.Y. C.PL.R (McKinney 2007) U.S.C (2006).
5 corpus, where you ask a state judge to review your state constitutional claims. Recently, federal judges have been more reluctant to interfere in state criminal proceedings, and, therefore, it has become more difficult for prisoners to get federal courts to review their claims. 11 Furthermore, federal legislation now requires that prisoners exhaust all forms of state relief, such as filing an Article 440 motion or petitioning for state habeas corpus, before seeking relief in federal court. 12 You also have only one year to make a federal habeas corpus claim from the time you were sentenced or re-sentenced to prison. 13 Chapter 13 of the JLM, Federal Habeas Corpus, explains federal habeas corpus in detail, and you should read it carefully if you wish to bring a federal habeas claim. C. Lawsuits to Challenge the Conditions of Your Imprisonment 14 Before you decide to bring a claim about your prison conditions, you must read JLM Chapter 14 on the Prison Litigation Reform Act ( PLRA ). The PLRA makes it harder for prisoners to take their complaints about prison conditions to federal court. The PLRA also imposes harsh consequences if you bring your claim incorrectly. Though the PLRA only applies to federal court cases, many states have passed similar laws to reduce the amount of prisoner litigation, especially in civil actions. JLM, Chapter 2, Introduction to Legal Research, will help you learn how to research if your state has laws similar to the PLRA. For federal court claims, the PLRA requires you pay the full court filing fee even if you proceed in forma pauperis (as a poor person). If you file as a poor person, your fees will be taken in installments from your prison account. This means instead of having to pay all the fees at one time, you can pay bit by bit. Keep in mind that under the PLRA, you risk receiving a strike under the three strikes provision. The three strikes provision of this law states that if you have three cases dismissed as frivolous, malicious, or failing to state a valid legal claim, you will have to pay the full filing fee up front to pursue your claim. If you receive three strikes, you will not be able to use the in forma pauperis procedure allowing you to pay the filing fee in installments from your prison account. Moreover, if the court finds you have filed a lawsuit for malicious or harassing purposes, you may lose any good-time credit you have earned. 15 Another very important thing to remember is that the PLRA states that you must exhaust all administrative remedies such as institutional grievance procedures and their appeals before you bring a claim in court. 16 Otherwise, your claim will be thrown out and you will not get your filing fee back. These are only a few of the restrictions imposed by the PLRA. Therefore, you must read Chapter 14 of the JLM before you file any federal claim. 1. Filing an Administrative Grievance The PLRA forces you to use all administrative grievance programs available to you before filing a federal court case. Many states also have this requirement. In New York, you must first file a complaint in the New York State Inmate Grievance Program before bringing a lawsuit. See JLM Chapter 15, Inmate Grievance Procedures, for more details about the 11. This concern will not be relevant to you if you are a federal prisoner in a federal institution. 12. The Prison Litigation Reform Act is explained briefly in the next section, and in detail in JLM Chapter U.S.C. 2244(d)(1) (2006) ( A 1-year period of limitation shall apply to an application for a writ of habeas corpus by a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State Court. ). 14. You can also file a complaint with the Department of Justice (DOJ), but, this is not a lawsuit, as they do not have to respond to your complaint. See Part 6 of this Section for more details on the DOJ process U.S.C (2006) U.S.C. 1997e(a) (2006).
6 New York program as well as some basic information about similar inmate grievance programs in other states. The New York State Inmate Grievance Program allows prisoners in any of the facilities of the Department of Correctional Services ( DOCS ) to file a complaint. Grievances must be about a DOCS policy, rule, or regulation, either as it is written or as correction officials or officers have applied it to you personally. Issues and problems that do not relate to a DOCS policy, rule, or regulation, or that do not involve you personally cannot be resolved through this program. For example, if your complaint involves a policy, rule, or action of an outside agency, such as the Division of Parole, the DOCS cannot help you U.S.C. Section 1983 Because state and city prison or jail officials and guards are considered state employees, a federal law, 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 ( Section 1983 ), allows you to sue them if they deprive you of your federal constitutional rights (like your right to adequate medical care, to be free from assault, and to have access to the courts and to legal materials). You cannot use Section 1983 to attack your conviction or sentence. To file a Section 1983 complaint, you must provide a detailed description of the incident or practice that provides the basis for your individual claim. You might also be able to bring your lawsuit as a class action. A class action is a suit brought on behalf of you and all others who experience the same problem or have the same complaint. 18 You can also add any supplemental state claims to your federal cause of action if a state claim involves the same facts as the alleged federal constitutional or statutory violation. 19 Section 1983 has a statute of limitations, which is the limit on the amount of time you have before your right to file a lawsuit expires. Section 1983 claims use the state statute of limitations for personal injury suits in the state in which the court is located. The statute of limitations period begins to run when you find out about (or should have found out about) the injury that you are complaining about. A federal judge who hears a Section 1983 claim may order or award: (1) an injunction (an order to prison officials to stop denying you your rights or to take steps to allow you to exercise your rights); (2) damages (money payments to make up for your injuries); or (3) a declaratory judgment (a statement by the court about the nature and limits of your rights made before they have been violated). After you determine the district court in which you must file, you should write to the clerk of that district court asking for the forms and information you need. By mailing the appropriate documents to the clerk, you have filed your Section 1983 lawsuit. Chapter 16 of the JLM, Using 42 U.S.C and 28 U.S.C to Obtain Relief from Violations of Federal Law, discusses Section 1983 suits in detail. 3. Bivens Actions20 under 28 U.S.C. Section 1331 Because there is no statute similar to Section 1983 allowing you to sue federal officials who deprive you of your federal rights, you can use what is called a Bivens action under 28 U.S.C. 1331(a). 21 A Bivens action is the federal equivalent of a Section 1983 action. So, a lot 17. State of New York, Department of Correctional Services, Directive No III (F), Inmate Grievance Program (1998) (as revised Aug. 22, 2003). 18. But, keep in mind that you need a lawyer to file a class action. You cannot file one by yourself. 19. See Part C(6)(b) of JLM Chapter 16, Using 42 U.S.C and 28 U.S.C to Obtain Relief from Violations of Federal Law, for more information on supplementing your federal Section 1983 case with state claims. 20. For more information on Bivens actions see Part E of Chapter 16 of the JLM, Using 42 U.S.C & 28 U.S.C to Obtain Relief from Violations of Federal Law. 21. The name Bivens action is taken from the case Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of
7 of the information applying to Section 1983 actions also applies to Bivens actions. For example, just like a Section 1983 action, you may use a Bivens action to complain about conditions and/or treatment violating your constitutional rights. Because of the PLRA, you must also exhaust (use up) available administrative remedies before filing in federal court. In bringing a Bivens action you can sue the federal official who violated your rights. But, you can sue the official only in his individual capacity, not in his official capacity. What this means is that you can sue the official as a person, and not as a government employee. 22 You also cannot bring a Bivens action against a federal agency or a private corporation which contracts with the federal government to operate prison facilities. 23 If you wish to sue a private corporation that operates prison facilities, you might have more success trying to bring a state tort action. Federal courts also may not listen to your complaint if it sounds like you are suing for a harm that is not very serious, such as your personal items being taken from you. If you bring a Bivens action, you must serve a copy of the summons and complaint on (1) the named defendants, (2) the U.S. Attorney for the district in which you bring your suit, and (3) the U.S. Attorney General in Washington, D.C. 24 If you seek injunctive or declaratory relief (meaning you are asking that what is being done to you stops, but you are not looking to get money), you may file your suit in the federal district where any defendant resides, where the events complained of occurred or are occurring, or where you presently reside. 25 If you are suing under Section 1331 for only money damages, you need to serve the summons and complaint on (1) the U.S. Attorney for the district in which you bring your suit, (2) the U.S. Attorney General in Washington, D.C., and (3) the officer or employee being sued. 26 To sue for damages, you must file in the federal district in which all the defendants reside or the district in which your claim arose (where the events you are complaining about occurred). 27 All service must be by registered or certified mail Tort Actions in State Courts As noted above, if you were injured by a state official or employee, and as a result your constitutional rights were violated, you may file a Section 1983 suit. This is a claim under federal law. You may also file a tort action in state courts against anyone who deliberately or carelessly injured you, or damaged or destroyed your property. You can file a state tort action regardless of whether they violated any of your constitutional rights, and regardless of whether you are also filing a Section 1983 federal suit. 29 Even if you are not filing a Section 1983 suit, you can bring a tort action in state courts. 30 Fed. Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388, 389, 91 S. Ct. 1999, 2001, 29 L. Ed. 2d 619, 622 (1971) (holding that a lawsuit for a 4th Amendment violation is permitted against a federal agent). 22. See Robinson v. Overseas Military Sales Corp., 21 F.3d 502, 510 (2d Cir. 1994) (stating that a Bivens action must be brought against the federal officers involved in their individual capacities. ). This is because if you sue an officer in his official capacity, it is like suing the federal government, and under the concept of sovereign immunity, the federal government cannot be sued. 23. See Corr. Servs. Corp. v. Malesko, 534 U.S. 61, 63, 122 S. Ct. 515, 517, 151 L. Ed. 2d 456, 461 (2001) (refusing to extend Bivens to allow recovery against a private company operating a halfway house under contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons). 24. Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(i) U.S.C. 1391(e) (2000). 26. Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(i)(2)(B). 27. Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(i). 28. Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(i)(1). 29. If someone did violate your federal constitutional rights, you may also file a tort action in a federal court. 30. If you file a tort action in New York state court, you should file your claim in the New York Court of Claims.
8 In New York, if the person who injured you was a state official, state employee, or someone acting under the authority of the state (like a private doctor the state hired), you may sue New York State in the Court of Claims. The Court of Claims only allows such claims against the state and can only award money damages; it cannot issue an injunction. Also, before filing suit in the Court of Claims, you must exhaust administrative procedures, like the Inmate Grievance Program, and pay a filing fee. You should read JLM, Chapter 17, The State s Duty to Protect You and Your Property: Tort Actions, for information about tort actions. 5. Tort Actions in Federal Courts If you are a federal prisoner and want to sue for a simple tort violation, you must sue using the Federal Tort Claims Act ( FTCA ) 31 instead of a Bivens action. The FTCA is a statute allowing people to sue the federal government for harm federal employees may have caused you or your property while were doing their jobs. You must first send in Form 95, Claim for Damage, Injury, or Death, and ask for damages from the federal agency whose employee allegedly caused the harm. 32 Many FTCA cases go through the agency and are settled there. But, if your claim is denied, you may file suit in federal court. Remember: if you have not gone through the administrative remedies before going to federal court, the judge will dismiss your case. 6. Article 78 Proceedings Article 78 of the New York Civil Practice Law allows you to go to court to challenge decisions made by New York State administrative bodies or officers. 33 Like all the suits mentioned above in Part C, you cannot use Article 78 to challenge your conviction or sentence. Article 78 is useful to challenge decisions made by administrative bodies like the Department of Correctional Services, the Board of Parole, and the Temporary Release Committee, or by state employees such as prison guards and administrators. You may challenge decisions made by bodies like these if you think they did something wrong when making a decision in one of the following four ways: (1) they acted beyond their legal authority; (2) they failed to do something required by law; (3) they made an unreasonable or grossly unfair (arbitrary) decision; or (4) they made a decision at a hearing without enough evidence. 34 Remember that you cannot challenge your sentence or conviction under Article 78; however, you may, for example, challenge the Board of Parole s decision to revoke your parole, which, if successful, would lead to your release from prison. Chapter 22 of the JLM, How to Challenge Administrative Decisions Using Article 78 of the N.Y. C.P.L.R. discusses Article 78 proceedings in detail. 7. Challenging Unconstitutional Prison Conditions Through the Department of Justice The United States Department of Justice ( DOJ ) has authority under a law called the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act to investigate state and local institutions for unconstitutional conditions. 35 This unit does not investigate federal institutions; you must 31. Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. 1346(b) (2000). 32. You can get this form by writing to the clerk of the federal district court in which you plan to file your action. Form 95 is also available at (last visited April 10, 2008). 33. N.Y. C.P.L.R (McKinney 1994 & Supp. 2006). 34. N.Y. C.P.L.R. 7803(1) (4) (McKinney 1994 & Supp. 2006) U.S.C (2000). Some New York federal courts have held that, under the PLRA, prisoners must exhaust the DOJ s disability complaint procedure in addition to their internal prison grievance procedure before filing a disability-related complaint in federal court. Other courts have disagreed. You should read JLM Chapter 14, The Prison Litigation Reform Act, specifically Part E(1),
9 use another agency like the Bureau of Prisons if you want to file a complaint about a federal prison. 36 The DOJ will only investigate allegations of systemic abuse problems experienced by many prisoners. If you think your prison suffers from widespread constitutional abuses, you might consider writing to the DOJ. The DOJ cannot provide individual relief, nor can it bring a claim regarding your criminal sentence. For these matters, you should contact an attorney. 37 The Special Litigation Section of the DOJ protects the constitutional and federal statutory rights of persons confined in certain institutions owned or operated by state and local governments. These institutions include facilities for individuals who are mentally ill or developmentally disabled, nursing homes, juvenile correctional facilities, and adult jails and prisons. The department s recent focus has included work on abuse in nursing homes, juvenile facilities, sexual victimization of women prisoners, and the unmet medical needs of prisoners and pre-trial detainees. The Special Litigation Section enforces federal civil rights statutes in four major areas: (1) conditions of institutional confinement; (2) law enforcement misconduct; (3) access to reproductive health facilities and places of religious worship; and (4) protection of institutionalized persons religious exercise rights. The DOJ receives a large number of claims every year and cannot investigate every claim. The DOJ also takes a long time to conduct an investigation, so it is important to be patient if you do bring a claim. If you write to the DOJ, try to be as specific and clear as possible. Your letter should include your name, prisoner ID number, race, the length of your sentence and how much of it you have served, and a description of what happened or the condition you believe to be unconstitutional. When you talk about what happened, be sure to include, where relevant, how many times the abuse happened, the names and races of the people involved, and whether the abuse has happened to other prisoners. If you know of others who have had similar experiences, encourage them to write letters too. Send the letter to: Special Litigation Unit Civil Rights Bureau, U.S. Department of Justice 950 Pennsylvania Avenue NW Patrick Henry Building, Room 5028 Washington, D.C Telephone: (877) ; (202) ; Fax: (202) ; (202) If you are filing a complaint under the American Disabilities Act, you must write to a different division of the DOJ. JLM, Chapter 28, Rights of Prisoners with Disabilities, will help you file this complaint. A summary of the Special Litigation Section s work is also available on the DOJ website at (last visited March 14, 2008). D. Conclusion When you are thinking about beginning a lawsuit, you must first determine exactly what your particular grievance is. Defining your problem will help you decide which laws or procedures are the most appropriate to remedy your situation. After thinking about your issue, decide which of the two main categories of legal action applies to you: 1) lawsuits that for more information about whether filing a complaint with the DOJ qualifies as an administrative remedy under the PLRA such that you must exhaust before bringing a complaint about prison conditions in federal court. 36. See (last visited March 14, 2008) for more information. The D.C. Prisoners Project of the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs also offers a helpful guide to the Bureau of Prisons complaint process: (last visited March 14, 2008). 37. See (last visited March 14, 2008).
10 challenge your conviction or sentence, or 2) lawsuits that challenge the conditions of your imprisonment. You may be interested in both of these types of lawsuits. Read additional chapters of the JLM that relate to your issue to help you make a decision. The next step is to learn what will be required of you for different types of legal action. Review the different types of suits described above for each type of legal problem, and think about what is required to be successful. In addition to comparing the legal requirements of the different types of actions, be sure to think back to what your problem is, and decide what your goals are for fixing that problem. Since different lawsuits provide different types of solutions, you should evaluate your potential courses of action with your goal in mind. At that point, you will be in the best position to decide if legal action is right for you, and if so, which type of lawsuit you should pursue.
11 APPENDIX A LAWSUITS THAT CHALLENGE YOUR CONVICTION OR SENTENCE Type of Suit Characteristics of the Suit Where Do I Bring My Claim: State or Federal Court? Important Things to Remember JLM Chapters you must consult Criminal Appeal A higher court looks at your case to see if the lower court, judge, or prosecutor committed any legal errors during the trial or sentencing. It depends on where you were first convicted. If you were convicted in a state trial court, you will appeal to a higher state court. If you were convicted in a federal court, you will appeal to a higher federal court. The higher court can only look for legal errors, not factual ones. Chapter 9: Appealing Your Sentence or Conviction Article 440 Federal Habeas Corpus State Habeas Corpus A trial court reviews circumstances that may have made your conviction or sentence unfair. A federal judge reviews your claim that your rights were violated under the U.S. Constitution. In New York, state habeas corpus is used mainly to challenge bail determinations and revocations of parole. You can bring this claim only in the New York state courts. See Appendix A of JLM Chapter 20 for similar laws in other states. You may bring a federal habeas corpus claim only in federal court. You may bring a state habeas corpus claim only in state court. You cannot raise any claims you have already raised or could have raised in a criminal appeal. You must have tried to use all the relief that your state provides before seeking federal habeas corpus. Remember that you have a one-year time limit to bring a federal habeas corpus action. You must have exhausted all your remedies before this. Judges do not like to grant this. In New York, try Article 440 before you bring a state habeas petition. Courts will generally make you use Article 440 unless you are challenging bail or a parole decision. Chapter 20: Using Article 440 of the New York Criminal Procedure Law to Attack Your Unfair Conviction or Illegal Sentence Chapter 13: Federal Habeas Corpus Chapter 21: State Habeas Corpus
12 APPENDIX B LAWSUITS THAT CHALLENGE THE CONDITIONS OF YOUR IMPRISONMENT Type of Suit Characteristics of the Suit Which Court- State or Federal? Important Things to Know JLM Chapters you must consult Administrative Grievance 42 U.S.C U.S.C (Bivens Actions) You may file a complaint not to a court, but to an administrative body. In prison, this means that you will first file a complaint with your prison. You may sue state or city prison officials if they violate your federal constitutional rights. You use this type of lawsuit to complain about federal officials who violate your federal constitutional rights. This is the federal equivalent to a Section 1983 suit, so much of the information about Section 1983 suits also applies to Bivens actions. An administrative grievance is not filed with a court, but the PLRA requires you to bring an administrative grievance before challenging prison conditions in federal court. Section 1983 claims are usually filed in federal court. You may bring a Bivens action only in federal court. Make sure you know about the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) and its requirements. See JLM, Chapter 14, The Prison Litigation Reform Act. You cannot use a Section 1983 claim to challenge your conviction or sentence. You must follow the state statute of limitations (deadline) for personal injury suits and file your complaint by this deadline. Consider whether you might also bring your suit as a class action. You cannot use a Section 1983 claim if you are complaining about a federal official. You can sue a federal official only in his individual capacity, not in his official capacity. You cannot sue federal agencies through a Bivens action. You cannot use this suit to sue private corporations that work with the federal government to operate your prison facility (use a tort action instead). Chapter 15: Inmate Grievance Procedures Chapter 16: Using 42 U.S.C and 28 U.S to Obtain Relief from Violations of Federal Law Chapter 16: Using 42 U.S.C and 28 U.S to Obtain Relief from Violations of Federal Law
13 Type of Suit Characteristics of the Suit Which Court- State or Federal? Important Things to Know JLM Chapters you must consult Tort Actions In addition to a Section 1983 suit or a Bivens action (above) you can file a tort action against anyone who deliberately or carelessly injured you or your property. You can also bring a tort claim by itself. You may bring a tort action in federal or state court. In New York, you can sue the state of New York in the Court of Claims if the person who injured you was a state official or employee. Remember, if you are a federal prisoner, you must first exhaust administrative remedies under the FTCA and PLRA before bringing a claim in federal court. Chapter 17: The State s Duty to Protect You and Your Property: Tort Actions Article 78 You may challenge decisions made by administrative bodies or officers in court (for example, the Board of Parole, or stateemployed prison guards). You may challenge decisions that may be unlawful or actions that show the administrative bodies failed to follow the law. You may bring an Article 78 suit only in New York State Court. You cannot use this type of lawsuit to challenge your conviction or sentence. Chapter 22: How to Challenge Administrative Decisions Using Article 78 of the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules United States Department of Justice (DOJ) The DOJ will investigate only allegations of systemic abuse (continued unconstitutional behavior that harms everyone) in state and local institutions. This type of claim is brought in federal court. The DOJ cannot provide individual relief it will only look into problems that are experienced by many prisoners. The DOJ also will not look into problems in federal institutions. If you decide to write to the DOJ Special Litigation Unit, make sure your letter is as clear and specific as possible. There are no JLM Chapters on this subject. For more information, go to: ov/crt/split/complai nts.htm
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