Buchanan v. Harris


John Buchanan is a transtibial, or below-the-knee, amputee who also has severe disabilities in his arm and hand. After ten months of pre-trial incarceration in Harris County Jail, guards abruptly punished Mr. Buchanan by moving him out of his handicapped-accessible cell and into one that made life intolerably difficult.

For the next four months, housed in inaccessible cells, he struggled to safely bathe, use the toilet, get in and out of his bunk, and simply manage the daily self-care tasks that even people in jails and prisons typically take for granted. As a result, he developed painful and potentially life-threatening sores on his residual limb. He filed a lawsuit against the jail, claiming that his rights under the US Constitution and Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) had been violated.

That lawsuit was dismissed in part because the court believed that he failed to adequately allege a “physical injury,” a requirement imposed by the Prison Litigation Reform Act on some prisoner lawsuits. This harmful law was made even worse by some circuits, which have read it to demand a physical injury that is “more than de minimis”—a requirement that is inconsistent with the text of the statute.

The MacArthur Justice Center agreed to represent Mr. Buchanan in his appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, in part to remedy the cruel injustice of his treatment, but also to challenge this court-created rule that allows the state to harm people in jails and prisons with impunity, so long as it doesn’t leave a big-enough mark.