Court of Appeals rejects the state's immunity claim in sex abuse case

The Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled that all persons in Michigan are entitled equal protection under the state’s Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act, including those incarcerated at state, county, and city jails and prisons.

In a 2-1 decision published March 27, the Court of Appeals ruled that all persons in Michigan are entitled to the equal protection of the law and the legislature cannot strip anyone in the state of those constitutional guarantees.

The case, John Does vs. Michigan Department of Corrections, was filed at Washtenaw County Circuit Court in December of 2013 by seven unidentified male prisoners who sought the protection of the state’s Elliot Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) for the sexual abuse and harassment they suffered while incarcerated in Michigan prisons.

Those seven plaintiffs allege that they were housed with adult male prisoners who took advantage of their youth to commit sexual and physical abuse and harassment.

The plaintiffs, who were under 18 when the abuses occurred, allege that the defendants (MDOC prison wardens and administrators) knew of, or should have known, the risk to these underage prisoners, but failed to prevent it.

State attorneys had argued for dismissal of the lawsuit, holding that imprisoned individuals were not afforded the protections provided by ELCRA.

“What this decision means is everyone in Michigan is protected by the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act, including those being held in state jails and prisons,” said Ann Arbor attorney Deb LaBelle, who served as co-counsel for the plaintiffs.

“And for the plaintiffs in this case, the ruling means that we can finally move forward with the trial. A trial which has been on hold for five years while the State of Michigan has stalled the case’s progress,” added LaBelle.

Beth Rivers, who also represents the plaintiffs in this case, says the decision is important for all those incarcerated in Michigan jails and prisons.  

 “The Court of Appeals has recognized that incarcerated individuals have the same rights and deserve the same protections as anyone else in the State of Michigan,” said Rivers.

Rivers, a partner with Royal Oak-based Pitt McGehee Palmer & Rivers, says the ruling supersedes language that was added to the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act in 1999 aimed at exempting state and county correctional facilities from the protections of ELCRA.

“The Engler Administration and a Republican legislature actually changed the wording of ELCRA to exclude those in Michigan jails and prisons. This was in response to the $100 million verdict against the state in the Neal case for allowing male prison guards to sexually abuse and harass 500 female prisoners over years. We hope this decision once again makes it clear that all people in Michigan have civil rights – even prisoners,” said Rivers.