During its September term, the Illinois Supreme Court agreed to decide a novel question presented by a case arising from the Fifth District: does a prisoner have an implied right of action against the circuit clerk and county sheriff for failing to accurately calculate the credit he or she is due against a prison sentence for presentence incarceration? In Cowper v. Nyberg, the Fifth District held that the answer is yes.

The plaintiff in Cowper pled guilty to three felony counts in 2011. The court sentenced him to 27 months’ imprisonment. The judgment and sentence included a lengthy summary of the days the plaintiff had already spent in custody, for which he was to receive credit against his sentence. A month later, the plaintiff filed a motion to recalculate the credit. The State responded, saying that after investigation, it had calculated that the 275 days of credit in the original judgment was wrong. The court ordered the State to recalculate the credit, which it did, ultimately concluding that the plaintiff was entitled to an additional 191 days of credit.

But the plaintiff had already been released by the time the calculation errors were corrected.

The plaintiff filed suit against the Circuit Court clerk and the county sheriff, alleging that they had a duty under Section 5-4-1(e)(4) of the Corrections Code, 730 ILCS 5/5-4-1(e)(4), to correctly calculate the length of his credit. The plaintiff’s complaint alleged that because of the defendants’ negligence in calculating the credit, he served 137 days more than he should have. The defendants moved to dismiss, arguing that the Corrections Code doesn’t provide a private right of action, and the trial court dismissed.

The Fifth District reversed. The Code did not provide an express private right of action, the Court concluded. Therefore, it considered whether the Court should imply a cause of action in the statute. Whether or not a statute creates an implied cause of action generally depends on four factors: (1) the prospective plaintiff is a member of the class for whose benefit the legislation was enacted; (2) an implied cause of action is consistent with the underlying purpose of the legislation; (3) a plaintiff’s injury is one that the legislation was designed to prevent; and (4) an implied cause of action is necessary to provide an adequate remedy for violations of the legislation.

The defendants argued that plaintiff’s claim ran aground on the second factor. The purpose of the Corrections Code, the defendants argued, was to protect the public, not to secure inmates’ rights. The Fifth District disagreed: “The general purpose of the Code of Corrections is to rehabilitate the offender, if possible, and to restore him to useful citizenship.”

The Court next concluded that the Code placed a mandatory duty on the Sheriff and the Circuit Court Clerk to calculate and transmit the number of presentence days’ credit the inmate is entitled to. From this, the Court concluded that the plaintiff’s injury was one the legislation was designed to prevent. The defendants argued that no private right of action was needed, since the statute allows for a grievance procedure before an administrative review board, but the Court held that this was no remedy for the plaintiff, since the board could not modify a court-ordered sentence. Nor did the plaintiff’s alleged injury create the basis for a constitutional claim, since such claims are limited to a showing of deliberate indifference. The Court thus found that all four of the implied-right-of-action factors weighed in favor of recognizing such a claim for miscalculation of presentence credits.

We expect Cowper to be decided by the Supreme Court in six to eight months.

Image courtesy of Flickr by ForensicBones (no changes).