On July 20, 2007, former prison inmates filed a complaint against the United States Bureau of Prisons on behalf of a class of federal prisoners who earned wages for prison jobs. The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Judge Martin Jenkins (retired) alleged that the prison wages (as low as 19 cents per hour) violated the Fifth and Thirteenth Amendments and International Law.
The plaintiffs sought declaratory relief and an injunction ordering prison officials to pay either $25 an hour, $500 per week, or "equitable remuneration" to working prisoners.. They also sought compensatory and punitive monetary damages, attorneys fees and costs, and treble damages for antitrust violations.
The defendants filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim. The District Court granted this motion in Serra v. Lappin et al
, No.07-01589, 2008 WL 929525 (N.D. Cal. April 3, 2008). Specifically, the court held:
(1) Sovereign immunity ruled out monetary damages claims because the defendants were acting in their official capacities;
(2) Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971) did not create a right to relief because the defendants were acting in their official capacities;
(3) The plaintiffs failed to present a cognizable Thirteenth Amendment claim because the amendment specifically allows involuntary servitude as part of incarceration for a crime;
(4) The Fifth Amendment protects only existing rights in life, liberty, and property. Because prisoners have no legal entitlement to payment for prison work, there was no interest at stake.
(5) The ICCPR was not a self-executing treaty and Congress had not enacted implementing legislation---thus federal courts lacked the power to enforce it; and
(6) The U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for Prisoners was a "guidance document," not a treaty, and even if it were a treaty, it was not self-executing.
The Court of Appeals, in Serra v. Lappin et al,
No. 08-15969, 2010 WL 1407795 (9th Cir. Apr. 9, 2010), affirmed the District Court's order of dismissal, with essentially the same reasoning but elaborating on a few issues:
(1) Federal courts may not apply the "customary law of nations" in the absence of a statute. The Alien Tort Statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1350, which gives original jurisdiction to federal courts "of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States," did not apply because the plaintiffs were not "aliens."
(2) Regarding the Fifth Amendment claim, the court noted that the Plaintiffs may have had a claim if they argued that prison officials had deprived them of wages to which they were duly entitled under the federal prison wage system, but this was not the case.
The Court of Appeals' decision was the last in the case. It is unclear whether the plaintiffs will appeal to the Supreme Court.Eric Weiler - 05/25/2010