Prisoner Can Sue for Bad Haircut

By Robyn Hagan Cain on June 22, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals clarified on Thursday that a bad haircut can form the basis for a lawsuit.

While we'd like to see the courts recognize that torturing tresses warrants an intentional (or negligent) infliction of emotional distress claim, the judicial branch isn't quite there yet. However, the courts are open to claims that unsanitary barbering procedures can pose a health threat.

The New Orleans-based appellate court ruled this week that a Mississippi prison official who implemented unsanitary barbering procedures can't hide behind qualified immunity.

Mississippi prisoner David Johnson filed a civil rights claim against the Mississippi Department of Corrections to challenge unsanitary barbering procedures in the state's prisons. Johnson sought damages totaling $15 million: $5 million in actual damages, $5 million in punitive damages, and $5 million for future damages.

In the complaint, Johnson alleged that prison officials forced inmates to work as unlicensed barbers and that the barbers routinely used clippers and razors without sanitizing them after each use. He contended that inmates who had diseases such as HIV and hepatitis were cut or nicked by the clippers and razors, which contaminated the instruments with blood, and the contaminated clippers and razors then were used on uninfected inmates like Johnson, who were accordingly exposed to contaminated blood when they were cut or nicked by the barbers.

In addition to such exposure, Johnson alleged that he contracted a skin abrasion and barber's itch. Johnson's complaint also stated that he was forced to have his hair cut by the barbers when he entered the prison, under threat of physical harm.

A magistrate judge screened Johnson's complaint, and issued an Omnibus Order summarizing the proceeding. She concluded that Johnson failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted against the defendants other than Prison Commissioner Christopher Epps, and did not order them served with process. She also stated that Johnson had the option of cutting his own hair, and had done so in the past year.

Johnson filed what he termed a "motion in response" to the order, clarifying that he had cut his own hair in violation of prison rules and could face discipline if caught; he alleged that he had no choice but to use the prison barbershop.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Commissioner Epps, and dismissed Johnson's claim with prejudice. Thursday, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision and reinstated Johnson's claims against Epps.

The Fifth Circuit noted that, although the Mississippi prison barbering policies have since changed, Johnson's allegations "permit a reasonable inference that Epps has acted with deliberate indifference by implementing a policy under which inmates use un-sterilized instruments on other inmates ... A reasonable official would understand that operating the barbershop in this fashion would violate Johnson's rights. As result, Epps is not entitled to qualified immunity," The Associated Press reports.

While it seems unlikely that Johnson will recover $15 million in damages, at least he can sue for an arguably bad haircut.

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