What's Past Is Prologue: Why the Prison Litigation Reform Act Does Not-and Should Not-classify Punitive Damages as Prospective Relief

JurisdictionUnited States,Federal
CitationVol. 85 No. 1
Publication year2021


Lisa Benedetti

Abstract: The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA) arose from Congress's intent to curb frivolous and institutionally invasive prisoner civil rights litigation. In furtherance of its goals, the PLRA limits the prospective relief prisoners can receive to such relief that is narrowly tailored to the federal rights violation at issue and the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation, otherwise known as the need-narrowness-intrusiveness standard. Under the PLRA, prospective relief includes all relief other than compensatory monetary damages. However, while the courts have frequently applied and interpreted the PLRA over the past decade, only one circuit has addressed whether prospective relief as defined in the PLRA includes punitive damages. In Johnson v. Breeden,(fn1) the Eleventh Circuit held that the term "prospective relief" includes punitive damages and that as a result, the PLRA requires that punitive damages conform to the need-narrowness-intrusiveness standard. This Comment argues that based on the inherent differences between punitive damages and prospective relief, the text of the PLRA, and the legislative intent behind the statute, prospective relief as defined by the PLRA does not, and should not, encompass punitive damages awarded to prisoners for violations of federal law.


One day after work detail, a prisoner held in a United States correctional facility returns to his cell.(fn2) He passes a prison guard who questions him about his possession of food items from the prison store. Without warning, the guard chokes him, punches him in the face, and throws him to the ground. The guard then kicks him, stomps on him, and beats him with a baton until the prisoner loses consciousness. The prisoner wakes up in the infirmary with multiple bruises, contusions, and lacerations. The prison investigates the incident and, as a result, fires the guard.

The prisoner files a civil action against the guard, alleging a violation of his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment while imprisoned.(fn3) The jury finds in the prisoner's favor and awards him $25,000 in compensatory damages plus $45,000 in punitive damages. The trial court upholds the punitive damages award, finding it not grossly excessive or arbitrary given the actual damages the prisoner suffered and the particularly egregious nature of the guard's conduct- the general standard imposed upon punitive damages.(fn4)

On appeal, the circuit court holds that under the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995(fn5) (PLRA), punitive damages constitute "prospective relief" and as such must comply with the statute's restrictions on prospective relief. Specifically, such relief must be narrowly tailored to the federal rights violation at issue and be the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation,(fn6) also known as the need-narrowness-intrusiveness standard.(fn7) Based on this standard, the circuit court overturns the punitive damages award, holding that by firing the guard, the prison fully corrected the federal rights violation and that awarding punitive damages would therefore violate the need-narrowness-intrusiveness standard. Thus, despite having sustained serious injury as a result of an egregious and intentional violation of his constitutional rights, the prisoner receives no punitive damages.

The Eleventh Circuit made such a scenario more likely when it decided Johnson v. Breeden(fn8) There, the court held that the PLRA classifies punitive damages as prospective relief, and as a result, courts must ensure that any punitive damages awarded with respect to prison conditions meet the need-narrowness-intrusiveness standard.(fn9) This decision potentially increases the likelihood that other courts will take a similar approach and will reduce-or even eliminate-punitive damages awards even where a prisoner's federal rights have been intentionally and egregiously violated.(fn10)

This Comment examines whether the PLRA in fact classifies punitive damages as prospective relief in light of each remedy's history and purpose, the text of the PLRA, and the legislative intent behind the statute. Part I compares and contrasts punitive damages with prospective relief and shows how they have historically been treated as two separate remedies that serve different purposes. Part II describes the history of the PLRA and shows how it was enacted to address two main issues: frivolous prisoner lawsuits and judicial micromanagement of prison conditions. Part III describes the Johnson opinion and its holding that prospective relief under the PLRA includes punitive damages. Part IV argues that the Johnson court erred when it held that the PLRA includes punitive damages as a form of prospective relief.


Punitive damages and prospective relief have long been treated as separate legal remedies. Punitive damages punish or deter behavior based on past conduct through the imposition of monetary awards, whereas prospective relief prohibits or compels future conduct via court-ordered injunctions. This Part examines the histories and purposes of these two forms of relief and demonstrates that courts consistently recognize them as different remedies that serve distinct-and often divergent-goals.

A. Punitive Damages Punish or Deter Reprehensible Conduct

Punitive damages are non-compensatory monetary awards used primarily to punish or deter reprehensible conduct.(fn11) They originated in eighteenth-century England, where courts awarded punitive damages as a way of compensating "for mental distress or for intangible losses."(fn12) Although punitive damages used to possess this compensatory element, as the definition of compensatory damages broadened, the definition of punitive damages shifted toward a "more purely punitive" one.(fn13) As a result of their punitive nature, they are often viewed as "quasi-criminal" awards even though they are only awarded in civil cases.(fn14)

Under federal law, punitive damages may be awarded to a prisoner claiming a defendant violated his federal rights where the "defendant's conduct is shown to be motivated by evil motive or intent, or when it involves reckless or callous indifference to the federally protected rights of others."(fn15) Juries are responsible for deciding whether to award punitive damages and how large the award should be.(fn16) Courts are responsible for reviewing such awards for reasonableness.(fn17)

States possess discretion over the imposition of punitive damages, but from a constitutional perspective, courts may only reduce or reverse awards that are "grossly excessive or arbitrary."(fn18) Courts must consider three factors when reviewing the constitutionality of punitive damages: "(1) the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant's misconduct; (2) the disparity between the actual or potential harm suffered by the plaintiff and the punitive damages award; and (3) the difference between the punitive damages awarded by the jury and the civil penalties authorized or imposed in comparable cases."(fn19) According to the Supreme Court, "[t]he most important indicium of the reasonableness of a punitive damages award is the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant's conduct."(fn20) Thus, the standard for reviewing punitive damages awards incorporates a recognition of the stated purposes of punitive damages- to punish and deter reprehensible conduct-as well as an acknowledgement of the jury's role as the primary appraiser of those damages.

B. Prospective Relief Compels or Prohibits Future Conduct in Order to Correct or Prevent a Violation of the Law

The concept of prospective relief arose out of Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity jurisprudence.(fn21) The Eleventh Amendment generally bars suits against a state and state officials sued in their official capacity absent a waiver by the state or a congressional override.(fn22) This bar prohibits suits against state officials seeking "retroactive" or "retrospective" relief. (fn23) However, the Eleventh Amendment does not bar suits against state officials to enjoin those officials from enforcing state law,(fn24) action which has come to be known as prospective relief.(fn25) While the distinction between prospective and retrospective relief has at many times been unclear or inadequate, most courts and commentators interpret the prospective-retrospective distinction as barring suits seeking damages and damage-like monetary remedies.(fn26) Thus, under Eleventh Amendment law, punitive damages are retrospective, not prospective.(fn27)

The prototypical example of prospective relief is the injunction.(fn28) Just as prospective relief commands state officials to refrain from acting in violation of federal law,(fn29) injunctive relief commands defendants to act or not act in accordance with a court order.(fn30) As a result, the history of and law behind injunctive relief is helpful for understanding prospective relief.

Historically, when the American legal system distinguished between courts of law and courts of equity, injunctive relief was a remedy exclusively available in courts of equity.(fn31) In 1938, the courts of law...

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